Where are all the direct-to-consumer bridal brands?

The wedding industry generates a whopping $3 billion per year in the U.S. So why are there so few direct-to-consumer brands in the space?

Sarah Drumm

Editor
Anomalie, launched in 2016, helps brides to design their own dresses online. (Photo: Anomalie)
CATEGORY DIVE

2020 was not kind to couples that had been planning to tie the knot. As the pandemic put the brakes on big events, many had to postpone – or seriously scale back – their wedding plans.

According to the Knot’s latest annual survey, 47% of couples that were due to marry last year postponed their receptions to 2021, in the hopes that restrictions would ease up enough for them to gather friends and family for a big blow-out. Those who got engaged during the pandemic were thinking along the same lines. The Knot found that 73% have arranged their weddings to take place this year. Meanwhile, many couples who did go ahead and have a COVID-safe, microwedding in 2020 are now wondering whether they should host a second, bigger celebration for their friends and family.

As venues report bookings through to 2023, America’s $3 billion-a-year wedding industry looks like it is set for a golden era. But while planners, bridal boutiques, florists, events spaces, and other vendors reap the rewards – we have to ask, where are all the direct-to-consumer bridal brands?

Not very online

While the Thingtesting directory is awash with mattress companies, cookware brands and home-cleaning products, there is a noticeable gap in the market when it comes to the business of selling products to brides and grooms. There are a few standout examples, such as Hitched and Marke, that both help couples choose their wedding bands at home with their mail-order try-on experiences, while Newlynamed sends out kits that help partners change their name after marriage.

When it comes to dresses, Reformation, Rent The Runway, and Anthropologie's BHLDN have sections of their websites dedicated to bridal gowns and bridesmaid dresses. Anomalie, based in Los Angeles, helps brides design their own made-to-order, custom dresses via its styling service.

“There’s a DTC company for everything and everyone now,” Anomalie’s founder Leslie Voorhees Means says. “[But] weddings, and wedding dresses, in particular are this last respite for the brick and mortar experience.”

Calling it off

For businesses selling to brides, the pandemic has been catastrophic and difficult to predict. Voorhees Means says that Anomalie’s sales surged between March and June 2020, as brides rushed to get their dresses, hopeful that weddings later in the year could still go ahead. But in the second half of the year, sales fell off a cliff.

Not every bridal business was able to survive. Two direct-to-consumer players in the dress space – Floravere and Brideside, which had raised $14.6 million in venture capital funding between them – sadly did not survive the pandemic, with both businesses winding down by the end of 2020. “I always said, ‘The beauty of this business is that it’s recession-proof because people will always be getting married.’ But it was not pandemic proof,” Floravere’s founder Molly Kang said in a December 2020 interview with her alma mater, the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Voorhees Means says things are now starting to pick up, and that proof points like the spike in engagement ring sales provide an even more positive outlook. Anomalie is now booking triple the number of calls with its stylists compared to the start of this year, and July is expected to be the company’s best-ever sales month.

“Brides are not cancelling their weddings – it’s a scaled back event, or it’s being pushed out and the big party’s going to be in a year,” Voorhees Means says. “The demand and the revenue, we’re not planning on that disappearing; we’re planning on it compounding in the next two years.”

Marke's home try-on kits guide couples through the process of choosing their wedding bands. (Photo: Marke)
Hard to commit

But even without the devastation caused by COVID, the wedding space has always been a tough nut for online brands to crack. At its last valuation, XO Group, the parent company of 25-year-old wedding planner platform The Knot, was said to be worth $933 million; a figure that’s surpassed by the valuations of Away, Glossier and Rent the Runway – companies that are significantly younger than The Knot.

Before launching her CBD brand House of Wise, Amanda Goetz had worked in the wedding business for over a decade – first as a wedding planner, then as a startup founder, and finally as The Knot’s vice president of marketing. She says that while The Knot was able to carve out its own corner of the market, the reason new brands struggle to enter the space is because of the fact they are new – and brides aren’t sure whether or not they can deliver on the high expectations they have for their wedding days.

“It’s a very emotional time, and you are looking for someone you trust with all of these big decisions,” Goetz says. “It’s not like if you get the wrong mattress, and next year you can replace it.”

Weddings are – hopefully, at least – a one-time event, and so there’s no room for suppliers to muck things up. When affordable wedding dress retailer David’s Bridal filed for bankruptcy in 2018, its communications strategy revolved around making sure brides knew that their dresses were safe.

As a four-year-old business, Anomalie has made some headway with this challenge. Instead of offering a range of off-the-rack styles, the company’s stylists walk customers through a variety of mix-and-match options to create their own custom wedding dress. Prices start at $1,399, and customers can get a full refund if the gown disappoints.

The service solves the main pain point that brides experience when wedding dress shopping – namely that the styles offered in store often don’t match up to what the bride has envisioned for her big day. Because its dresses are custom-designed, Anomalie can also cater to a wider range of body shapes. In 2019, the company estimated it had swiped a 13% slice of the U.S. wedding dress market.

There is also a social aspect to buying a wedding dress – the “Say Yes to the Dress” moment where the bride comes out of the changing room and her friends, mother and mother-in-law tells her she’s found The One. Anomalie isn’t able to hand bridal parties glasses of bubbly when they log onto its site – but its stylists do let the brides bring friends and family onto calls to help them make decisions.

Wedding band seller Marke has also been able to earn trust by walking couples through the process of buying wedding bands – although the brand’s cofounder, Daniel Mardkha, admits that this purchase is far lower-stakes than the engagement rings.

“When it comes to wedding bands, generally speaking couples like to keep it classic and simple,” Mardkha says. The company’s try-on kits – where a selection of six rings are sent out for couples to try on – drive 90% of its sales, and Mardkha estimates that 40% of customers who receive a kit go on to buy the rings. The kits can also be tailored to a customer’s preference; if a bride knows that she only likes yellow-gold jewelry for example, then those are the styles she will receive.

Stylists walk Anomalie's customers through the wedding dress design process. (Photo: Anomalie)
Where can wedding shopping go next?

Although Zola has played a big role in digitizing the registry experience, there are still huge gaps in the direct-to-consumer landscape when it comes to shopping for weddings. There isn’t yet a household name selling direct-to-consumer party favors or tablescapes specifically designed for weddings, for example. That typically falls on more traditional party rental businesses.

Goetz says that there are some aspects of the wedding planning process that are simply too difficult to replicate online. “Those major milestones – the cake tasting, trying on the dress – that bring people together,” she says. Although some cake makers did pivot to offering at-home tastings during the pandemic, the pomp and circumstance that comes with a traditional tasting experience was lost.

Etsy and Not On The Highstreet have become go-to destinations for couples looking to deck out their venues with favors and table decorations. These items, Voorhees Means says, would also be difficult to create a direct-to-consumer experience around, because of how often fads change. “Some aspects of the wedding are so trend-driven that it would be hard to tackle,” she says. “The great thing about wedding dresses is that [while] the styles change slightly over time, the core of the dress is fairly similar. It’s a white dress, with lace usually.”

One category that does remain ripe for direct-to-consumer players, says Goetz, is “swag.” It’s no secret that millennials and Gen Zers love merch – just look at the number of companies selling branded sweatshirts to them these days – and it’s not uncommon for bridal parties to get kitted out in matching dressing gowns and slippers the night before the wedding, or for the groomsmen to make toasts with personalized whisky glasses.

But for the sector to become more attractive to investors, it’s crucial for brands to figure out how they can expand their product range beyond a single item like wedding bands or dresses. Anomalie says it’s looking at expanding into categories like veils, accessories, and garments for the mother of the bride or flower girls (Voorhees Means says there are higher margins here than with bridesmaid dresses), where the knowledge it has gained around fit will come in handy.

Marke is currently considering other parts of the wedding planning process that it can get involved in, but Mardkha is tight-lipped on where the brand might go next.

“This is an honest criticism of our business as it stands right now, but I do think investors want to see repeat customers,” he says. “At the moment we have a great business where we send [customers] their kits, they try the rings and buy the rings, but at the moment we don’t have anything to bring them back to.”

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