J. Crew, Urban Outfitters Say Yes to the Dress

Last Updated Aug 26, 2010 2:45 PM EDT

Trends are trumping tradition in the retail wedding business. J. Crew (JCG) is opening a bridal shop and Urban Outfitters (URBN) plans to follow suit.

Although skeptics question taking on the bridal business in a tough economy, J. Crew and Urban Outfitters are betting they can crack a growing market by offering a distinctive, lower-cost alternative.
The wedding market isn't what it used to be. For one thing, retailers are setting aside more floor space for lower-cost products that pull customers into stores, a strategy that doesn't work to the advantage of the bridal business. Saks (SKS), for example, has closed most of its bridal departments, meaning there are fewer upscale outlets for designers like Vera Wang. That is surely a factor, as our BNET colleague Lydia Dishman noted, in Wang's recent decision to offer mass-market versions of her designer wedding dresses.

Toon van Beeck, senior industry analyst for research firm IBISWorld, noted that from a peak of $30,000 in 2006, the average spending on a wedding has declined to less than $20,000 today. The firm expects wedding spending to increase by 12% in 2011, but that doesn't mean that traditional bridal retailers can expect a return to pre-recession business.

The cost of a wedding gown and bridesmaid dresses account for about 10 percent of total wedding expenses, IBISWorld reports, so it isn't surprising that shoppers have been looking for alternatives. Retailers have noticed. The Limited (LTD), Ann Taylor (ANN) and Chico's (CHS) White House Black Market all have begun offering wedding dresses for less than $500. Similarly, J.Crew and Urban Outfitter target an affordable price range. J. Crew's website has one for less than $400.

While it has carried bridal gowns since 2004, J. Crew is beginning to take a comprehensive approach to matrimony. J. Crew has established a management team charged with developing bridal as an extension of the company's fashion business; the idea is not only to sell bridal fashion, but also related jewelry and accessories.

Building from a 10-store test of bridal departments in Chicago, Atlanta and Boston, it is opening its first dedicated bridal shop on 66th Street and Madison Ave. in New York this summer. CEO Millard Drexler, speaking in a March conference call, said the appointment calendar in the test stores had been filled constantly. He asserted that bridal is a business that requires retail space, as purchasers need to experience the feel, fit and fashion. So, the New York store will permit J. Crew to test bridal operations it can use in other locations.

Urban Outfitters is doing something similar with the bridal business it is developing through its Anthropologie division. The new operation, which will launch early next year, will target "trendy, lower income consumers," van Beeck noted, who don't like the cost or the styles associated with traditional wedding fashion.