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Competing for Today's Bride

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The Gourmet Retailer
July, 2001
By Michelle Moran


We all know today's bride is preparing for an entirely different household than the bride of a decade ago. Engaged couples are older, more established and savvy shoppers who have created individual identities, and are now merging households. It's a big change from the 20th-century bride who, for the most part, moved from her parents' home to her husband's.

Add to the mix the increase in the groom's role in bridal registry, more practical gift selections, and the growing variety of registry choices - and you realize it may be time to rethink your registry strategy.

The Couple

Research conducted by Bride's Magazine indicates that the bridal registry business is bigger, healthier, and more profitable than ever before. Now, a whopping 99% of engaged women register (up 6% from 1997) and of those, 93% expect that the majority of their guests will make their purchases from the registry. Besides that, Generation Xers who are tying the knot are members of the most brandable generation ever (they want the good stuff).

Today's engaged couples are registering at a variety of stores, including department stores (69%), mass merchandisers (66%), discount department stores (33%), online (9%), and importantly for you, at specialty stores (42%). Online gift giving is expected to grow from $1.2 billion in 1998 to $17 billion in 2004. In 1999, a total of $19 billion was spent on gift registries for weddings. According to Modern Bride, 91 percent of all engaged couples register for gifts, and an average of $6,800 is spent on those registries.

"Twenty years ago, the average bride was 22.5 years old. Now she's 28 and men are in their thirties when they marry today," said Elsa P. Pinto-Melikian, president of Sacramento, Calif.-based registry service company Your Registry. "What this means is that they already have established households and they are registering for items that exactly represent their tastes and their lifestyle."

Indeed, Bride's Magazine survey of 6,000 direct mail recipients and 1,000 online recipients found that 52% of engaged couples were cohabitating, so they're already establishing their homes as sanctuaries.

Respondents emphasized that they view their homes as "intimate reflections of who they are." Forty-two percent said they cook together as couples, while 57% percent of them sit down to dinner together four times a week. They anticipate that they will spend significantly on their homes.

Entertainment was also a factor in engaged couples' lives and their expectations about married life. Bride's Magazine found that 95% of them "enjoy entertaining" and that 92% expected to entertain more after their marriage.

It's these lifestyle trends - which are impacting every facet of gourmet specialty retailing - that are changing the face of bridal. While traditional values are still considered, they are not the focus of today's bridal registry. Lifestyle and home trends have also brought a diversification of retailers into the bridal mix with companies like Home Depot, West Marine, Camping World, and Ace Hardware competing for the bridal dollar.

"Today's couple wants more options in registries. We see them registering for practical items from hardware stores and personal items," Pinto-Melikian said. "In the gourmet segment, couples are registering less for traditional tabletop and more for entertainment items and cooking tools. It used to be the silverware, the glassware, the china; it's not anymore."

So what are brides in your area doing? How are you attracting them to your store? Who in your area is competing for your bridal registry dollar? And what can you do with this information?

All these factors can be used to formulate your own strategy to develop a healthier bridal registry program in your community with the tools you already have at your command.

The Options Imagine for a moment that it's 1980 and you are engaged. Tradition leads you to the store where your parents registered or a department store recommended by a friend. You complete the in-store registry by hand, noting the obligatory crystal and china patterns and jot down a few special items you and your betrothed might actually use every day.

For today's bridal couple, that scenario is unacceptable. Most register at a few different locations, completing lists that include everything from outdoor grills to boating accessories. Bridal couples are confronted with a bewildering number of choices in an increasing number of retail channels. Smart and savvy, these couples are demanding more access to registry information, convenience, and choice.

Margaret Junkhan, owner of Ames, Iowa-based Cook's Emporium, said her bridal couples are proving to be customers with diversified interests.

"We are seeing a lot of variation in registries. Our couples are older when they get married. They've had their own apartments and already have a lot of possessions," she said. "What they are registering for are replacement items of better quality or discretionary things they haven't bought yet."

Pinto-Melikian's bridal couples have registered for everything from boating gear to designer motorcycling clothing to landscaping services.

"We do have some unusual registries," she admitted. "One couple's entire registry was done from West Marine. When this man called, he was so excited about registering for the things he needed for his sailboat. They registered for housewares for the boat, specialty cookware, and dishes. What people want to register for is what they want and need. They don't want to be pigeonholed."

Bridal couples are turning to untraditional stores to register for gifts. Sporting good stores have registries. Couples can even register for stocks and bonds.

"There are so many choices these days. The Internet has really opened up this market," Pinto-Melikian. "People are getting bored with their choices and what they are doing is going to the Internet and looking for their options."

For retailers without online registry, this can be a major obstacle. Remember that nine percent of registries are done directly on the Internet. Pinto-Melikian's company offers retailers an online solution as it allows their customers access to registries online without having to construct a complete site. Vermont-based Timberline Interactive is creating an e-commerce "mall" for independent retailers in search of an online registry presence. Seeing a niche in the marketplace, computer software companies such as MarCole Enterprises are developing packaged registry applications.

There are also portal companies, such as theknot.com and weddingnetwork.com, which offer registry site hosting.

"The majority of this country is still not on the Internet," Pinto-Melikian said. "It's something that's growing, but the largest percentage of the registry business is on land."

So while you are preparing or reviewing the Internet options, consider your land service. Opportunities exist right in your neighborhood to increase your competitive edge. Partnering with other local companies who offer bridal registry but don't compete with your services is the first step.

The Strategy

Just because there is a wide range of options available doesn't mean tabletop is not making it onto registry lists. In fact, Bride's Magazine notes that, "Bridal registry represents upwards of 50% of tabletop sales annually." Respondents to Bride's survey said they were registering for a multitude of items - glassware, 79%; casual china, 79%; stainless steel, 68%; crystal, 59%; fine china, 58%; and sterling/silver plate, 58%.

"If a couple wants to registry for the classic registry items - china, flatware, crystal - they will," said Panamai Manadee, owner of Boston-based tabletop store Bliss. "I think it would be very difficult to convince a REI-loving couple to register for Limoges, unless their interests run the full gambit. I think that for the most part, I speak to a captive audience. Couples are looking to register for tableware - it's my job to convince them to register with Bliss, not some generic department store."

Guiding couples to understand the importance of your store in their registry package will grow your bridal program and create loyal customers. Specialty retailers by virtue of who they are don't carry all of the items an engaged couple seeks, so it is critical that you network with local businesses and pool your resources. Since today's engaged couples want the high-quality tabletop and cookware you sell, as well as the Weber grill and Black & Decker tools available at the hardware store next to you, why not join forces?

Manadee belongs to a local association called the Boston Wedding Group, a juried group that allows only two vendors per category, with the exception of reception sites. Once a category's two slots are filled, other vendors have to wait to apply.

"I primarily utilize this group for cross-promotion. However, if a local hardware store or recreation goods store invited me to participate in a bridal registry event, I wouldn't write it off," Manadee said.

Marketing your store and your products to bridal couples is essential to registry success. Throw out old beliefs about what works on a registry and open your eyes to your own inventory and those of your neighboring retailers. Broaden your mind to the possibilities of cross-merchandising your bridal registry with another regional store that complements your own,

Junkhan believes educating brides and guests is critical to a successful registry program and she encourages multiple registries and even refers her customers to other local retailers.

"Here in the downtown area, we do send each other clients," Junkhan said. "We like to be able to service our customers completely, even if it's not our store from whom they will ultimately purchase the gift. We can't be everything to everyone and we don't want to be."

Use discretion though when selecting partnering merchants. Junkhan was approached by a local tabletop retailer who had recently acquired the business. After listening to her proposal, Junkhan opted out, believing there were just too many questions as to how the promotion would work.

"Still, I refer brides to her all the time. If our couples want high-end china patterns or crystal, they can complete their registries in her store," she said. "I always ask where they are registered because if we've sold their registry or if we don't have anything the guest is excited about, I can guide them to another store where they are registered."

Junkhan also participates in bridal fairs, which help Cook's Emporium cross-promote its business with other companies providing services to engaged couples.

She explained, "I think some of the stores that don't participate in these events are making a mistake. They think they don't have anything for that market, but really they have no imagination whatsoever." Junkhan said barbecue items are really popular registry items. While she stocks the tools, cookbooks, and other accessories, she refers couples to the hardware store down the street for the major grill purchases.

Don Leonard, owner of Ketchum Kitchens in Ketchum, Idaho, has the best of both worlds. Not only does Leonard operate a specialty kitchenware store, but he has an adjacent drug and hardware store. Instead of following Junkhan's lead of referring bridal couples to another business, Leonard simply walks them next door and continues the registry process.

"We cross-promote the two stores together," Leonard said. "We always mention the hardware store and try to get the groom over to register for items he wants. We also have a barbecue on display in the kitchenware store - a big outdoor grill.

"The registry is completed by employees in the kitchen store and overseen there as well. Leonard said having the wide selection of product has increased registry lists.

"We walk every aisle and tell them if they like it to put it on their list. We tell them not to worry about the price; if their guests can't afford it, they won't get it," he explained. "They register for everything. Nothing surprises me - one couple registered for a Rubbermaid trash can. With second and third marriages, you'll find they register for items they really need to fill in a gap between the two merging households."

Educating Customers

While brides may be in search of practical items, guests want to give a gift that will be remembered for generations. Finding level ground between these two approaches is a matter of education.

"Older family members like to buy traditional things, so I always encourage brides to register for some traditional items," said Pinto-Melikian.

Junkhan agreed, saying, "We had someone who wanted to buy a gift for a bride who was registered here and the price range where she fit was a cookie sheet. She was an older family member and she just didn't understand it. It didn't seem like a wedding gift to her."

This guest's problem is a perfect example of why you need to have a variety of options for not only the bride, but also the guest. The same guest was wary about giving her credit card information over the phone, didn't want to have the gift delivered, and had no access to Cook's online registry.

But the guest isn't the only one needing education. Manadee counsels her bridal couples to carefully consider their registry selections. Her strategy is to educate the couple about long-term goals.

"My advice to brides whose grooms bring up Home Depot or REI is to think about what they will still have in 20 to 30 years - that vacuum you register for today could be outdated in a few years," she said. "And are you really going to be maximizing your kayak in 20 years? China takes up a lot less space than a kayak, and it doesn't get outdated."

The product selection at Bliss is another tool Manadee markets as part of her bridal registry strategy. She focuses on differentiation in product selection and educates her customers as to the value her inventory represents.

"I don't carry the most widely accessible brands. I want to offer great brands, but also to have my customers find things at Bliss that they haven't seen anywhere else. For instance, I've carried Rosenthal since the inception of my business - this is before they were bought out by Waterford and became available in a wider market.

I still have a large assortment of Rosenthal because I like their products, but I tend to carry patterns that are more unique like 'Love Story' - a triangular, colorful pattern. We also carry Alessi and Kartell, both of which are hard to find in the Boston area.

"Providing bridal couples and their guests with ample registry information is essential to success. Many retailers have created bridal registry tips explaining why registry is important and what couples should include in their registries. Within this information, you might also include other local retailers who complement your services and incentives for registering in your store. These are the tools which will sell your registry.

Bliss's bridal registry literature makes note of several services offered at the store. Among the selling points is Bliss's online registry, which includes photos. It also highlights an individually designed mini-catalog for each couple called the Bliss List.

"This Bliss List is a one- or two-page listing of a couple's gift selection with pictures. It's for friends and family that might not have Internet access and also a beautiful keepsake for couples," she said. "We know our couples so well that we can make suggestions when guests ask, 'What do they want the most?'"

This level of service is something specialty retailers must promote. Mass merchandisers can not compete with specialty retailers in the arena of customer service in bridal registries.

"One bride recently told me about a conversation she had with a department store registrar. This particular bride was going to be out of the country for a month after her wedding and wanted to have the gift shipments held. She was told that this store shipped gifts on their own schedule and she would just have to make other arrangements. That would never happen at Bliss - if a bride wants her gifts held until after her honeymoon, we will make a note of it and adjust our shipping schedule accordingly. I think this is the advantage that independent retailers have over the 'big boys.'"

Leonard's promotion strategy takes advantage of existing promotions with major cookware and tabletop manufacturers. Included in his store's bridal brochures are incentives for registry completion. Most of the programs he offers already exist with manufacturers, some of whom have online bridal questionnaires, which include how to select cookware and bridal clubs.

"There are things that already exist, but you have to go and ask manufacturers for them," Leonard said. "Some small stores like ours won't ask but whether it's a knife from Henckels or a T-shirt and apron from All-Clad, it makes a difference. It makes them happy."

Making sure you take full advantage of the tools offered by manufacturers is essential to small retailers. If your local rep hasn't given you information on bridal incentives, contact the company directly or check out their online resources. If they offer consumers a search option to locate a retailer nearby, test the site to be sure your name comes up. If it doesn't, contact the site's Webmaster and have the problem corrected.

These are just some of the opportunities and options available to your store to increase bridal registry sales. It's easy to see you don't have to wait for that windfall to create the perfect online registry or expand your store by 10,000 square feet to include camping gear or outdoor grills. Becoming competitive in today's bridal market could be as easy as joining local business owners for a cup of coffee, realizing that more of your inventory fits today's bridal lists, and educating brides in your area to understand the value and choices you can provide.

© 2001 Bill Communications, Inc.

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