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Online rivals, delayed marriages squeeze bridal shops

Sales are slipping as buyers shift to the web, marry later and opt for casual styles.

Queens resident Amy Wu, 29, left, looks on

Queens resident Amy Wu, 29, left, looks on as her friend Angela Yip, 29, of Brooklyn tries on a gown at Bridal Reflections in Carle Place with help from bridal consultant Deziree Brandi. Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

Here comes the bride, all dressed in white — in a gown she bought online.

Bridal shops on Long Island — like those across the country — are seeing declining sales as they face competition from online retailers take a growing slice of the wedding attire business. The shops are also facing pressures from other factors, including millennials delaying marriage and having more casual weddings that allow bridal parties’ attire to be purchased outside of traditional bridal shops, experts said.

Today, younger consumers are looking for bargains more than heirlooms, local shop owners said.

“They come in and use you for a dressing room. They take a picture. They take all the information and go home and order it online,” said Donna Mause, owner of Renate’s Wedding Boutique in Lindenhurst. She will close her 34-year-old shop in two months, a decision motivated mostly by internet competition and declining consumer loyalty, she said.

Online marketplace eBay reports a 73 percent increase in sales of wedding dresses, including vintage, used and new with tags, among Long Island shoppers from 2013 to 2018. The company said it saw a 16 percent increase in wedding dress sales on the Island from 2016 to 2017, and a 5 percent increase from 2017 to 2018. 

The number of bridal shops nationwide declined by 753, or 10.5 percent, to 6,435 between 2010 and 2018, according to IBISWorld Inc., a market research firm in Los Angeles. At least five Long Island stores have closed in the last five years.

They included Helen’s Private Collection Bridal Center in Commack; Elena Bridal Couture and Nouveau Bride, both of which were in Merrick; Lillette’s Bridal in Bellmore; and Marra’s Bridal Boutique in Oceanside.

Most of the owners of those former stores either declined to comment or could not be reached.

But one owner, who didn’t want to be identified, said internet competition dealt the biggest blow to the business last year after 14 years of ownership.

Popular online retailers, such as Anomalie, Lulus and JJ’s House, are fueling a shift in the $2.4 billion bridalwear market, often with the help of word-of-mouth reviews and social media influencers, experts said.

“The online shift is definitely the biggest challenge for the traditional bridal retailer. And, absolutely, bridesmaid dresses are more affected than bridal dresses, but bridal dresses have suffered at the hand of online competition, more so at the lower price points,” said Raya Sokolyanska, retail analyst at Moody’s Corp., a Manhattan financial services company.

Last year, 37 percent of bridesmaids purchased their wedding attire online, up from 13 percent in 2011, according to The Knot, a wedding resource website in Bethesda, Maryland.  The percentage of brides who said they bought in stores fell from 93 percent to 88 percent, according to The Knot.

The declines have been bigger at some local shops.

Sales at Renate’s are down 45 percent since 2017, said Mause, whose store sells mid-priced wedding dresses that range from $900 to $2,500.

“It’s a huge investment every year to keep up the top styles,” she said, and today’s customer behavior has created a challenging business environment.

Over the last two years it’s become common for potential customers to be no-shows for appointments, and for women whose weddings have been canceled to not finish paying for dresses after they’ve made the 50 percent deposit  for orders from manufacturers, leaving the shop on the hook for the other half of the cost, Mause said. 

“It’s a very different environment. ... Very disheartening, actually,” she said.

The changes have created a buyers’ market in bridal attire, according to some experts.

“Now it’s a very cutthroat, competitive market. … Stores are trying to keep their heads above water. They’re fighting for that bride, and they’re trying to discount. But at what expense?” said RoseLynn Fiumara, owner of Bridal Reflections, a high-end chain with shops in Carle Place, Massapequa and Manhattan.

Brides these days do more price comparisons, said Christina DiPasquale, who recently resigned as manager and buyer at Village Bridal & Boutique, a 12-year-old Babylon shop.

“Girls are all over the internet and price shopping [at stores]. They go from place to place to find the best price on that gown,” DiPasquale said.

Brides sometimes have unrealistic expectations about the cost of dresses in stores because they are seeing cheaper gowns online, but they’re not aware that often those garments have been purchased from knockoff companies instead of directly from original designers, she said.

Discount shops are taking the hardest hit: Their target customers are more likely to shop online for deals than more affluent women who can afford to splurge on the full bridal experience at high-end stores.

“A girl that is going to spend $5,000 on a gown is not going to buy it online. … They want a pretty store, and they want [the] experience,” Fiumara said.

The average price of a wedding dress last year was $1,750 nationwide and $2,453 on Long Island, according to The Knot.

Another factor in the bridal shop shakeout is that millennials have been postponing marriage.

The median age of first-time brides in New York State was 29.5 in 2017, up from 28.3 in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. For men, it was 30.9 in 2017, up from 29.9 in 2010.

“Millennials represent the vast majority of marriages today. In general, millennials have been postponing marriage due to high student loans, pursuing careers or simply deciding to live together instead of getting married,” said Sokolyanska, the Moody’s analyst.

From 2005 to 2017, the percentage of married men 20 to 34 years old declined from 29 percent to 19.7 percent in Nassau County and from 31.8 percent to 19.4 percent in Suffolk County, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

During the same period, the percentage of married women in that age group fell from 37.1 percent to 28.8 percent in Nassau County and from 41.2 percent to 25.9 percent in Suffolk County.

Beyond cost

In January, the nation’s largest bridal retailer, David’s Bridal, emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection without having to close any of its 330 stores, including three on Long Island, after cutting its debt by $450 million.

The chain’s average dress cost $500 in 2017, according to IBISWorld, citing The Knot.

“Their specialty and their core strengths have always been in the value lower end of the market. And that has contributed to their challenges. Lower-income couples have had a harder time in this economic recovery,” Sokolyanska said.

But not everyone shopping online is concerned only about finding a cheaper price. Sometimes brides find online retailers offer more sizes, with a wider range of plus-size dresses, while others might be seeking more casual options for their big days, industry experts said.

Plainview resident Kasey Sammis, 26, a part-time bartender and full-time student, was more concerned about not wasting a lot of time going from shop to shop looking for a dress for her November wedding.

After finding that the dresses she liked on David’s Bridal’s website were not available as samples to try on in a store, she ordered a gown online from Anomalie.

Production on her customized dress started last November and her gown arrived about three weeks ago.

“It was my dream dress. It was right there in front of me. I would never be able to find this in a store,” said Sammis, who spent $1,850 on the dress.

The shift to online has been good for her alterations business, said Nancy Sinoway, owner of Nancy Sinoway Design, a 36-year-old shop in Port Washington.

About half of her wedding alterations business is for dresses bought online, she said. If those customers had purchased at a bridal boutique,  alterations would be offered in-house.

“We’re working from 7 in the morning until 7 at night,” Sinoway said.

The quality of the bridal apparel available online has improved, but brides are still taking risks ordering dresses online based on photos alone, experts said. Scam sites are plentiful.

And not everything is fixable.

Amy Tedesco, owner of Outrageous Boutique in Plainview, which sells eveningwear and does alterations and custom dressmaking,  said she's seen her share of panicked brides hoping she can fix bridal gowns that arrived not looking like what they ordered.

Some “are atrociously made because [brides] are ordering from [overseas] websites,” Tedesco said. “Some of them I can fix. Some of them I cannot. If it’s not worth fixing, I don’t put my hands on it, because I don’t want my reputation on it.”

Casual times

Millennials are also changing the wedding industry with their style choices.

Many young adults’ weddings are more casual than those of generations past, experts said.

For example, younger brides often will pick the colors for their bridesmaids’ dresses but allow the bridesmaids to choose their own styles, meaning the dresses don't all have to be purchased from the same boutique.

Queens resident Amy Wu, 29, and her friend Angela Yip, 29, of Brooklyn, were trying on wedding gowns at Bridal Reflections in Carle Place last month. Both are planning fall weddings.

Wu had budgeted $2,000 to $5,000 for a high-end dress, which she knew would be white and mermaid style, but she planned to buy her five bridesmaids’ dresses from Lulus, a Chico, California-based online retailer.

“A lot of people buy from Lulus because the styles are nice and prices are fair,” she said.

Lulus’ dresses typically range from $70 to $120.

At San Francisco-based Anomalie, wedding gowns range from $1,000 to $2,000. Gowns can be customized based on online, phone and email consultations between designers and brides, said president Calley Means.

With about six months’ turnaround time, the company produces its dresses in China in the same factories used by high-end dress designers, he said.

“The dirty secret is that a beautiful silk ... hand-beaded dress that is selling for $6,000 or $7,000 in a store — that dress is made in our factories ... in China, and that dress cost a couple of hundred dollars to make in labor and materials,” Means said.

Adapting to compete

Some bridal shops are struggling because they’re not doing enough to compete, said Judie Ulberg, a director of sales for Eve of Milady, a Manhattan designer of couture wedding gowns sold in high-end stores worldwide, including Bridal Reflections. Ulberg, of Bellmore, has been in the industry 35 years.

“Chances are ... they’re not investing in updating their salon for the times," she said. "A lot of times shops go out of business because the consultants are not knowledgeable about the products, whether it’s fabric or styling. Each manufacturer or designer is different. Consultants need to know that.” 

Business is going well at Bridal Reflections, said Fiumara, whose dresses cost $1,600 to $10,000 in the Long Island shops.

Founded in 1973, the business remains strong in part because it offers a high-quality experience with personalized service from knowledgeable, longtime bridal consultants and in-house alterations staff, she said.

That doesn’t mean Bridal Reflections hasn’t had to make changes, Fiumara said.

Over the last three years, the chain has become more selective about the bridesmaids’ lines it carries. That includes not selling dresses from wholesalers that also sell directly to customers online at discounts that stores can’t compete with, Fiumara said.

“If we hadn’t changed things, we would have gotten clobbered with the bridesmaids discounts,” she said.

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