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Brides want more bling for the buck

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2009 - Blushing brides and happily-ever-afters aside, shifting social forces are challenging wedding industry professionals to perform in ways they've never been asked before. From targeting new types of clients to taking on aggressive marketing techniques, one fact remains certain: As brides look to personalize the big day while stretching their wedding dollars, the pros are stepping up to cater to them.

Nationally, the number of weddings is expected to climb over the next five years, according to the Wedding Report. While a slight decrease is predicted for the St. Louis area, it's not much: 17,599 in 2009 compared to 17,526 in 2014. "We've got two major generations that are now of age," explains president of the Wedding Industry Professionals Association and wedding planner Joyce Scardina Becker. "Both are getting married simultaneously." With the overlap of Gen X and Gen Y, "there are more weddings, and there are more opportunities for wedding service providers," she says.

Sounds good, but on-the-ground professionals here say it's more complicated than the numbers let on. Jim Fish of Jim Fish Photography has been shooting weddings full time for a decade and a half in St. Louis. In recent years, he has noticed a definitive decline in business.

"We're fighting a battle on two fronts," says Fish. He says the economy and the digital era's enabling of "weekend warrior" photographers -- individuals with amateur-level experience who will work for less pay than established pros -- have posed challenges that just didn't exist five years ago. "Brides -- potential customers -- are doing more shopping around for cheaper prices," says Fish.

Long-time St. Louis florist Don Defoe echoes Fish's experience. "We find it's not uncommon for a bride now to talk to three or four florists before they decide on one they're gonna use," he says. "It's not always the florist that shows them the best product, it's the florist with the best price."

Defoe finds himself competing with part-time florists, much like the weekend warriors Fish describes. Many of these individuals work from home and don't have the overhead costs associated with a traditional retail space. To remain competitive, Defoe is developing more creative designs and cutting costs where he can.

Although Forrest Miller, owner of the popular banquet hall the Royale Orleans hasn't experienced a dramatic drop in bookings, he has noticed some surprising trends at the facility. Among them, a shift in clientele. "Our middle- to low-income customers are pretty much way down," he says. "We have picked up a lot of people who used to go to country clubs or downtown venues."

In addition, lately the customers booking at Royale Orleans try to negotiate. "They're asking for things they'd never ask for before ... deals, discounts," says the 30-year industry veteran.

GemEx, a company that uses a fancy-schmancy device called a spectrophotometer to measure the light intensity, or brilliance of precious stones, is also benefiting from consumers' desire for a bargain. CEO Randall Wagner says that most people cannot tell the difference between many qualities of diamonds as judged by the traditional four Cs, but they do notice if the diamond sparkles.

And that's where GemEx comes in.

Wagner says GemEx diamonds - carried at Kay Jewelers and Jared's in St. Louis - "are moving" as people look to buy a less expensive diamond with more shine. "As times get tough, people are more careful with their money and start doing more research than normal," says Wagner. "They think, 'Why spend $12,000 or $10,000 when I can spend $6,000 or $7,000 and a get a great looking diamond that stands out?" Or, more to the point, "They start looking for more bling for the buck," he says.

Working off a similar theme, designer consignment wedding gown shop White Chicago  has seen a jump in sales this wedding season. Their two-pronged business plan is straightforward: give past brides the option to recoup some of their big day's costs by selling their designer gowns while giving brides-to-be the chance to find the dress of their dreams at 30 to 70 percent off the traditional retail price. Along with the once-wed variety, White Chicago carries new and sample gowns.

"It's the No. 1 trend: how to save," says co-owner Stacy Senechalle. "It's not about the big, huge, grandest wedding. It's how to make it more intimate, more personal."

Senechalle believes White Chicago fits that trend in more ways than one. "Restyling is really big. We have a seamstress here, and you can restyle either a veil or even a dress."

While some St. Louisans travel to Chicago to check out White Chicago's wares, here they can haunt thrift and resale shops and use a private tailor.

Also defying the odds is event planner and floral designer Rachel McCalla, owner of Lucky You Productions . McCalla attributes her increase in business this year to aggressive, effective advertising, a willingness to negotiate to secure a job, and appealing to the niche of the "off-beat bride."

"My client base is older," says McCalla. "I typically don't plan weddings in the 20-to 25-year-old range. I attract more 30-year-old-and-up types. Most of them have their own money and already have a good idea of what they're looking for before they hire me."

While McCalla has successfully tapped that niche, other professionals recognize that what some families accept as expected wedding expenses can be a luxury for others. "Our business is supported by strong financial families," says Miller, the Royale Orleans owner, "the people who have excess money to spend for celebrating - weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, whatever."

However much Gen Xers and Ys spend to take the plunge this year, and whomever they contract out to help them, there is little to no speculation that weddings on the whole will slow down anytime soon. As WIPA president Becker, says, "I believe weddings are somewhat recession-proof because brides and grooms are still falling in love and getting married. ... A wedding is a milestone celebration of life, and that's what keeps us going." 

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer. 

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