For this latest installment of Retail Voices, we sat down with Joe Milone, who heads up product development in our Akron, OH facility. He’s been around since OnQ’s early days, and has played a big role in helping to grow the company to what it is today.
The pandemic upended nearly every aspect of our lives. The wedding industry was hit particularly hard, with countless couples scaling back or postponing their weddings. The popular narrative surrounding covid-related impacts on the wedding industry centered on wedding venues, caterers, photographers and other vendors that support couples on their big day. But we wanted to look more closely at how covid impacted the retail side of the wedding industry.
Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to look far to gather the data! As it turns out, several of our employees planned weddings during the pandemic. One common thread in their experience was how significantly the process of shopping for wedding dresses has changed. Their collective insight on this transformation is enlightening, and shows just how resilient bridal retailers became in the face of a global pandemic.
First off, it’s important to note that the pandemic didn’t halt the wedding industry in its tracks. Surprisingly only 35% of couples delayed or rescheduled their weddings – which means a whopping 65% pushed forward with their plans. So demand remained strong for wedding attire throughout the pandemic. Here’s a quick look at how covid influenced the evolution of wedding dress shopping.
Change Was Already Underway Pre-Covid
Long before covid hit, change was already underway with a younger demographic looking for bargain dresses vs. more expensive heirloom dresses to keep and pass on to their children one day. And a growing number of brides are now comfortable shopping for their dresses online – for example, there was a 73% increase in wedding dresses sold on eBay between 2013 and 2018.
Along Came Covid…
Covid dealt a huge blow to bridal retailers. Most were deemed “non-essential” businesses and had to shut down for weeks or even months in the early days of the pandemic. And reopening meant jumping through hoops to adhere to the CDC’s latest guidance on how to safely operate during the pandemic. Many increased their online presence by offering virtual appointments or hosting live events with dresses shipped directly to brides to try on in their homes. For in-person consultations, most shops operated by appointment only, and had to enforce time and occupancy limits, masks, temperature checks, plexiglass dividers and a whole host of new disinfecting practices. Staff were trained (and retrained!) as health guidance continued to evolve. It was no easy feat, but in the end the in-store dress-shopping experience became even more personalized than before covid, with the entire staff devoted to one bride at a time.
Bridal Retailers Forced to Pivot
Larger boutiques (especially those with multiple locations) had the resources to implement big changes, and the ability to scale covid-safe best practices across multiple stores. Most larger retailers were able to offer in-person or virtual consultations. Many implemented time limits, as well as limits on the number of dresses a bride could try on. Larger boutiques offered online tools – such as a style preference quiz – that a bride could take beforehand to easily narrow the scope of dresses to try on once they arrived at the shop.
Smaller shops didn’t fare as well during covid, lacking the resources and the infrastructure to adapt in the same way larger stores did. Small shops had less stock on hand, and most lacked a robust web presence with a comprehensive catalogue of dresses available for purchase. This put the smaller shops at a significant disadvantage compared to larger shops. Yet most persevered by offering personalized touches and flexible pricing to appeal to customers who went out of their way to support small businesses within their communities.
What Does the Future Hold?
Like the rest of the retail industry, bridal retailers rebounded surprisingly well as mandated lockdowns eased or were eliminated altogether. In fact, this past summer saw a wedding boom of sorts as those who delayed their weddings rushed to the altar as large-scale gatherings became safer to host.
The pandemic forced bridal retailers to up their online game, and it’s likely that many of the elements that helped keep shoppers safe during the pandemic will remain post-covid as bridal retailers strive to offer customers a richer dress-shopping experience that brings together the best of online and in-store shopping. What was born during the pandemic out of necessity – new offerings like online style quizzes and virtual try-on experiences – still appeal to customers today, and they’ll be around long after the pandemic fades away.