Forty rolls of toilet paper, six cornish hens, eight tubes of toothpaste and… a wedding dress. Though this may not be your typical shopping list, all these items can now be found at Costco stores thanks to the discount retailer’s recent addition of bridal boutiques.
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The dresses, which were introduced in February, add to the wholesale club’s already substantial nuptial offerings that include engagement rings and wedding bands, cakes, and enough hors d'oeuvres platters to feed any reception
“Costco is becoming a one-stop-shop for brides,” says Janet White, general merchandise manager at Costco (NASDAQ:COST). “They can also get their flowers and invitations, and a whole palate of Dom Perignon. We don’t offer bridesmaid dresses yet, but you never know.”
The dresses, designed by Kirstie Kelly, are currently available in stores via a traveling trunk show that stays in a given store for a four-day special event and at Costco.com. The company won’t detail how many dresses it’s sold, but says the collection has been popular with West Coast brides. Trunk shows are headed for stores in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada in the next few months.
Costco isn't alone in its foray into the wedding gown business. Ann Taylor, White House Black Market, J.Crew and Urban Outfitter have also launched bridal collections.
But whether or not Costco’s line of dresses has lasting potential depends on the atmosphere it creates, says Matt Bell author of Money & Marriage.
“At the end of the day, it’s a warehouse and we need to see how well they pull off the experience side of it,” says Bell. “People will have a much easier time buying food and rings, because if you’re trying on your wedding dress in the midst of a year’s supply of coffee or dog biscuits, it lacks the romance and atmosphere one might have dreamed of when they were a child.”
But White says Costco is pulling out all the stops when it comes to service. Brides can make an appointment online to get personalized assistance at the pop-up boutique at their local Costco, or just walk in. Although the boutiques may be set up a few feet away from a 100-pound bag of bird seed, they are totally enclosed to provide brides the privacy and experience they want.
And part of that shopping experience is getting a deal, with the dresses approximately 40% cheaper than retail, according to White. A recent survey by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com shows the average wedding dress costs $1,099, while Costco dresses are priced from $699 to $1,399 in sizes 2 to 24. It also carries two types of veils that cost around $100 each.
“I would hope that brides can see the benefit in saving money on their dress,” says Bell. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience and is something very emotional, but if you’re thinking long-term about your money, beyond your wedding day, if you can save money, why not?”
Although a warehouse setting is arguably not as refined as what you many find in a bridal boutique, Bell argues that other iconic wedding-dress experiences have their problems as well.
“Just look at the ‘Running of the Brides’ at Filene’s Basement. That’s not an elegant experience. Women spend the night on the street and elbow one another out of the way, but it works. Who knows--I think Costco has the opportunity to turn this into a branded experience.”
If Costco does turn their bridal boutiques into a permanent fixture in its stores, it could mean that smaller wedding dress boutiques take a hit.
“Our average dress costs $1,500," says Jeanne Hennessey, owner of Lorraine Roy Designer Collections & Bridal Boutique in Danvers, Mass. "You don’t need to go to a warehouse to get that kind of price, but reality TV has made young ladies think they have to spend $5,000 if they come into a bridal boutique,”
Modern brides looking to cut costs may cause the wedding industry to lose the “white-glove service” it once provided, say Hennessey.
“Ninety percent of the time, our clients come back in with their wedding pictures and there are hugs all around, but things are changing, and I hate to see people lose that personal touch,” says Hennessey. “When else in your life are you able to be catered to and you can say, ‘This is the way I want it,’ ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’”
Hennessey says that although she has sold more dresses than usual so far this year, the prices of those sold have dropped. More women are now looking for dresses in the $1,000 price range, rather than the $3,000 price range they sought in early 2008.
“I have faith that there will always be a certain segment of brides who want to come back and be pampered,” said Hennessey. “I think the pendulum is already swinging back to those who want the personal touch.”
But the idea of “personal touch” can easily be drowned out by a weak economy, says Gilda Carle, author of “Don't Bet on the Prince!,” and teacher of New York-based Mercy College’s course “Love as Big Business.”
“The economy is still affecting people,” says Carle. “People are not spending as much on a wedding as they might have some years ago, but brides are not going to lose the whole aura of their special day. Most people will spend as little as they can on weddings as long as they don’t lose that fairy tale they’ve always wanted.”
In years past couples would put any savings toward their wedding, today Carle says they are more likely to invest it in a new home.
The down economy has placed the spotlight on value, and people who have been “around the block” have a better grasp on saving money. Carle says Costco may see most of their business coming from older couples who have been down the aisle before.
“I think the younger generation whose parents are paying for the wedding will still go all out for a soup-to-nuts affair. But older people know how difficult it is to keep their heads above water and they’ll have no problem buying everything they need at Costco and doing it themselves.”
Dress designer Kelly says that although she got her start in couture fashion, she is happy to offer brides a bargain on a dress for their special day. Kelly still maintains her Los Angeles-based boutique where dresses range in price from $4,000 to $30,000, and says that sales of her high-end dresses haven’t slacked due to the Costco offerings.
“It’s a different customer and a different experience,” says Kelly. “But our level of service is the same no matter who you are. At Costco, sure, you may have people walking by with carts of food, but there’s something really wonderful about it and comfortable. It’s a family atmosphere, but that has by no means deterred the girls from finding their dream gown.”
White says that while Costco’s offerings of wedding dresses is in its infancy, the company does hope to be a destination for brides looking to plan their special day.
“I love seeing people who say, ‘Wow, I never thought Costco would sell wedding dresses!’” said White. “We hope all savvy brides will look at Costco moving forward.”
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