That's what the founders of several wedding planning sites discovered when it came time to plan their own Big Day. "My wife and I had a hellacious time planning a wedding," said David Liu, CEO of TheKnot.com
"Being college educated and relatively capable, we were shocked to find how difficult the process actually is and how painfully inadequate the existing resources in the service industry are," he said.
So he set out to change the standard "old media" strategy of driving from place to place into a point-and-click one-stop shop. The Knot is one of a growing number of companies offering chat rooms, information on states' legal marriage requirements, budgeting tools, honeymoon planning and, of course, wedding loot for sale. About the only thing you can't do digitally is try on the dress.
With partners AOL and QVC, The Knot takes its place among wedding brands with big name backers.
WeddingChannel.com has partnered with Federated Department Stores while WeddingNetwork.com is the online registry for Modern Bride magazine. Della.com, which calls itself the largest e-registry, aggregates retailers like Williams Sonoma, Dillards, Neiman Marcus and Restoration Hardware.
The timing couldn't be better. The Association of Bridal Consultants reports there were 2.3 million weddings in 1997, and the group expects that number to increase through 2010. A typical wedding costs $15,000, and 12.5 percent of all retail dollars are wedding-related, said the group's president Gerard Monaghan.
What's more, the six months before and after a wedding represent the time when a couple is most likely to spend money, making up a $45 billion wedding market and a hungry advertising base, he said.
Considering that an average wedding has about six to 10 vendors and the couple generally interviews three to five in each category, it's no wonder "to-be-weds" are turning to the Web for assistance, said Monaghan.
Since weddings are, after all, very customized events, many sites offer couples space to set up a free personal wedding Web page. There guests can check in for directions and registry details while couples send group e-mails or track RSVPs. The service is particularly useful for the growing trend of weekend weddings, where out-of-town guests can find resources and travel accommodations.
"One of the things we realized is that a wedding is sort of like a microcommunity," said Liu. "It also functions as a reunion for people who haven't seen each other in a long time. Here's the opportunity to say 'Hey, I'm coming from St. Louis. Anyone driving?'"
Another area sites are targeting is simple etiquette. Does the mother-in-law stand in the receiving line? What's the protocol at the reception? Sites like Della, which owns the URL Weddings.com, are moving to bulk up on content s men and women can look up advice they may not otherwise feel comfortable seeking in an offline environment.
Of all the features, e-commerce remains the holy grail of wedding sites. The Knot prides itself on being the only one to allow consumers to register directly with the manufacturer online.
By having a real-time component, the site offers the bride and groom a chance to swap gifts that may have been duplicated or that rank low on the wish list, all without the guests' knowledge.
"It's kind of diabolical, but again we're here to serve the bride and groom," said Liu. "This is an industry that suffers from 40 percent return rates....We're experiencing a less than five percent return rate because people are making adjustments to the list." The Knot then bulk ships the gifts to the bride and groom to cut down on the hassle factor, he said.
But couples prefer to register in person and in two or three stores on average, argues Rebecca Patton, CEO of Della.com. "People tend to register in a department store, a housewares store like a Crate and Barrel and often a local store or unique store like an REI," she said. "We have an aggregation across all of those categories which is what makes the notion of aggregation so compelling."
"You can do one personal wedding page, send it out to your guests, (and) have a link to the registry, (so) they can go and find your registries all in one place," she added.
Aside from weekend weddings, another growth area is in ceremonies that reflect a cultural heritage, according to the Association of Bridal Consultants. The group estimates that 75 percent of this year's weddings will include some kind of ethnic touch.
"This is where vendors can make money if they can specialize in handling ethnic foods, ethnic music," said Monaghan.
Chris Byrne, CEO of WeddingWeb.com, noticed this trend along with a more general underserved market when he went to 10 weddings in the summer of 1995. "You can see there's a tremendous need to have different outlets for knowledge on customs and traditions," said Byrne, noting that most wedding sites cater to a Judeo-Christian ethos while ignoring other religious preferences. "There's a marketing opportunity right there."
Byrne, who plans to relaunch WeddingWeb in March, said he is particularly excited about leveraging local service providers. "The majority of vendors are mom-and-pop businesses. Our objective is to cater to their needs in an e-commerce way and help them reach couples getting married and market wedding-specific services to them."
And that is the real challenge for online wedding sites, said Ken Cassar, digital commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications. "Partnerships with local service providers are going to be absolutely critical for anyone who hopes to accommodate all of the brides' and grooms' needs, and those partnerships are going to take a while to develop."
So is here a flagship Internet wedding portal that's emerged among these players? While they're trying, "no one's truly there yet," said Cassar, noting that some have gotten a handle on commerce but not necessarily content. "We are starting to see the synthesis of the two but I would argue that none of them has clearly established themselves as the Yahoo of the wedding space."
While some sites like TheMan.com and TheBestMan.com have attempted to bring a male perspective to the occasion, women have retained their historical role as primary decision-makers in wedding planning, he said. "Old habits die hard, and the wedding process is, and I believe will continue to be, the domain of the bride and her mother."
As such, women's portals have expanded their wedding offerings. "I think we're going to find that while IVillage and Women.com aspire to be everything to all women, they're not going to be able to bring the focus to the wedding space that folks like WeddingChannel, Knot and WeddingNetwork would be able to," said Cassar, noting the exception of Martha Stewart. "She really is a very horizontal lifestyle play, and event planning is something she really has the market cornered on and the wedding is probably the most significant event of anyone's life."
Cassar projects some smaller players will move toward more nontraditional weddings such as gay weddings, wedding in exotic places, or perhaps even low-budget ones. "We may even see someone like a Wal-Mart come in and try to dominate the lower middle class to middle class end of the market."