From the flowers to registries to the big day itself, the wedding industry is getting simpler and cheaper
What you need to know: The average cost of a wedding, as well as the average size of the guest list, have decreased in recent years, and legacy planners and bridal boutiques have fallen on hard times. Companies that simplify the complicated wedding-planning process or offer smaller, less-expensive weddings — known as microweddings — are finding success.
How to capitalize: Opportunities exist for scrappy entrepreneurs to bootstrap regional microwedding businesses and earn $700 a wedding. Bigger business opportunities exist for those who can make traditional elements of weddings more affordable or help struggling, legacy businesses build improved online infrastructure and embrace young couples who want a faster, more efficient planning process. With a major player struggling, the bridal wear industry is also ripe for disruption.
Your future summers may include far fewer wedding invites, and it won’t be because you’re less popular. The wedding industry, long overdue for disruption, is trending smaller and more affordable as millennials rethink costs and strict traditions that were once considered mandatory.
Several companies are meeting these demands by trying to simplify almost every aspect of a wedding, from invitations to guest lists to gift registries to flowers — and even the idea of a wedding itself. In the last several years, a new celebration that’s grander than an elopement but smaller than a full-scale wedding has grown increasingly popular: the microwedding.
“It is a trend we are seeing,” says Esther Lee, a senior editor at the powerhouse wedding website The Knot. “Couples are curating and personalizing the experience on the wedding day. Certain people are choosing to have more intimate weddings because it speaks to them and their personalities.”
They’re also finding businesses willing to help them bypass the antiquated system that turned weddings into ordeals. Planners are now specializing in microweddings, and numerous startups — including Bloomerent, Anomalie and Our Story Bridal — assist couples in purchasing wedding staples like dresses, rings and flowers much quicker and at a less expensive price.
The cost-efficient move to micro weddings
The US wedding industry is estimated to reach $76B in revenue this year, according to Ibis World, a number that has risen 0.3% since 2014. But revenue in the wedding planner industry tumbled by 2.6% from 2013 to 2018, and bridal store industry sales have remained flat while the number of bridal stores and bridal store employees have decreased slightly during that time.
David’s Bridal, which had about 30% of the $2B bridal dress market share, according to Ibis World, filed for bankruptcy last year. Its 300-plus stores remain open after a restructuring, but the brand is seen as vulnerable.
Yet people are still getting married — there were 2.2 million U.S. weddings in 2016, the highest number since 2005 — suggesting couples are replacing traditional fixtures with new online alternatives and DIY planning to decrease cost.
US marriage rate from 2000 to 2016 (Source: CDC)
The average cost for the festivities in both 2017 and 2018, according to The Knot, was about $33k (the median cost is likely closer to two-thirds of that amount). High as it is, that average cost has also ticked downward from 2016, when people spent an average of $35,329.
Weddings in Manhattan ($76k) and Los Angeles ($44k) are more expensive than weddings in the South and Midwest, The Knot found. The venue tends to be the highest expense by far, costing $15,163 on average, followed by engagement ring ($5,764), a live band for the reception ($4,019), and photographer ($2,630).
The average size of the guest list has also declined. When The Knot started tracking records in 2007, a wedding featured an average of 153 guests. In 2017, the guest list was 136. Weddings with 50 or fewer guests accounted for 7% of weddings in 2016, according to the Knot, and 11% in 2017.
These smaller celebrations fit the very loose definition of a microwedding or a pop-up wedding — a gathering of between 5 and 50 guests with an atmosphere that is usually more laidback than a standard wedding.
Until a few years ago, nobody was talking about microweddings. You either got married in front of dozens of friends and family, or got eloped (at the courthouse or at 3 a.m. at a drive-thru chapel in Vegas). This rise in microweddings stems from debt-drowning, cost-conscious millennials wary of adding another five-figure expense that isn’t a mortgage.
The most common package at Colorado Microweddings, for instance, goes for about $1,200. The sum covers the ceremony, photography, flowers and any needed permits, with the couple paying for wardrobe, dinner, makeup and other costs on top of that.
For the Lake Tahoe-based company The Hytch, the cost of a popular microwedding package is $1,500. “Most of my couples are like, ‘we wanted to have something nice but we didn’t want to spend that much money,’” says Yeliz Berg, The Hytch’s founder. “They want to use that money towards a honeymoon or down payment on a house.”
Cost isn’t the lone motivator. In fact, Lee, from The Knot, says even people with large budgets increasingly prefer elements that offer a pleasing, unique experience (i.e. photo booths, sushi bars, bourbon flights) for a lower number of guests than an average experience for a higher number of guests.
Many people also choose microweddings out of a personal preference, perhaps to represent their introverted personalities or to bypass customs set decades ago for mostly white, mostly heterosexual couples.
“A lot of couples I work with who are from a younger generation are less driven by tradition and more driven by their own personal experience and values and a unique celebration for their partnership,” says Justine Broughal, whose company, Together Events, has the tagline “partnership not patriarchy.”
Aside from the Knot’s surveys, data on microweddings is scant. There is no definitive estimate of companies specializing in microweddings or how much they have grown. But internet searches indicate many major metropolitan areas lack devoted microwedding companies, and most microwedding companies focus on specific regions and cities rather than the entire nation.
It may be tempting to ponder scaling microweddings on a national level, but these companies have stayed local for a reason. Meghan Ely, principal of the wedding-focused publicity firm OFD Consulting, says local relationships and insider knowledge are key for wedding planners. Those attributes can’t be easily replicated nationwide.
Iver Marjerison started Colorado Microweddings in 2016 on a whim after friends asked him to officiate their wedding. He created a Craigslist posting to advertise himself as an officiant to other couples and quickly made connections with local vendors. The business grew from word of mouth, search traffic and reviews on Facebook. Marjerison estimates he will plan 200 pop-ups this year in Colorado. He coordinates with venues and vendors but typically doesn’t handle any duties the day of the wedding. He can make up to $700 per wedding. The business is now his main career, in addition to working on a novel.
The Colorado mountains attract microwedding customers from all over the world — as do the beaches of Florida and California — but Marjerison believes growth in microweddings will not be limited to America’s top visitor destinations. “You could do them anywhere,” he says. “It’s potential for everywhere.”
Bringing tech and VR to weddings
The act of merely introducing products and services on the internet happened 20 years ago for almost every industry. In the wedding business — for everything other than The Knot — the internet is still new.
“Technology is really what’s going to be the disruptor,” Ely says. “You would say that seems obvious but not to this industry that is very slow to embrace technological advances. I would say the up and coming Gen-Z audience will demand it.”
The newest online developments follow a trend toward simplifying the planning process and reducing the total cost.
Zola, founded in 2013, is the new giant of the wedding industry. It offers an improved platform for gift registries, guest lists, and other wedding planning details. Rather than register at Target or Bed Bath and Beyond, couples can make a wish list for anything on Zola, including gift cards or honeymoon funds. Zola then turns their requests into a functioning registry. Guests can contribute by buying the gifts or even donating money via credit card. Zola received $140m in funding its first five years.
Bloomerent (Save $50 with code ‘c84f9d’) lets couples save money by sharing their flowers with other nearby events or reusing previously bought flowers. Couples who want to reuse flowers enter their wedding date and location and see which nearby events are offering to share flowers. They don’t get as much freedom in choosing color and variety but save 40% to 60% off the regular cost. Couples who share flowers receive about 10% back from what they paid.
Anomalie is an online-only bridal dress store. Customers send pictures of dresses they like and then speak with a designer over the phone. It was founded in 2016 and its revenues started doubling each month. By December of that year, it had 500 customers. In the last year, some 275k US brides created an Anomalie account, according to TechCrunch. The designer returns a sketch of a dress and after choosing details like fabric and patterns, the customer receives a dress in the mail. The price for a new dress starts at $1k, about $500 below the national average. Anomalie had a $4.5m seed round and this year received $13m in Series A funding.
All Seated has taken a next step by introducing virtual reality. It uses a 3D designer tool to map various wedding and event venues. Those venues can then offer an online tour to couples across the world.
Anomalie provides this same fully online experience for designing and buying a wedding dress. Its dress sketch visualizer allows brides to choose fit, color, pattern, and more. The share of brides who buy dresses online is expected to grow from 10% to 30% in the coming years.
Blending online and in-store
There’s plenty of room for brick and mortar — but with an online presence. Only about 6% of legacy stores in the United States and major European countries have a digital presence. In New York City, Our Story Bridal has found a middle ground. The New York boutique buys and sells pre-owned designer wedding dresses. Customers can browse their website for dresses and then try on a wider selection in the store.
Jacquelyn Ward and fellow co-founder Ana Maes described the early days of Our Story Bridal, in 2017, as “very scrappy.” Before opening a brick and mortar store, they tested their popularity with a pop-up. To market their business, they handed out flyers in Manhattan. They went to consignment stores and sample sales, where they believed they could reach potential customers. Their early money was used for revenue-generating moves, such as hiring a sales staff. Now Our Story Bridal works with some 100 brides a week and has plans to expand.
Jacquelyn Ward (left) and Ana Maes co-founded Our Story Bridal after meeting in business school. (By Lara Jade via Our Story Bridal)
Other opportunities exist for entrepreneurs who can be quicker, less expensive, and more flexible than legacy companies at providing key components for a wedding. It’s not uncommon for florists to not have email and require face-to-face meetings. The wedding industry still features photographers, florists, and venue hosts that only think about large, time-consuming Saturday weddings. They have not adjusted to smaller ceremonies that could take place any day of the week.
Similarly, many wedding planners and bridal wear owners base their businesses around the assumption engaged couples will wait several months to a year before getting married and cannot assist customers looking for a quicker turnaround.
“Today’s brides want to make their own rules and timelines and own budgets,” Ward says.
Her store can make alterations in a single day.
The problem with getting funding
But entrepreneurs breaking into the wedding industry should not expect an immediate infusion of VC money or the potential to quickly scale to the national level. Zola and Anomalie are exceptions.
Lover.ly, which essentially morphed from a blog to a full service online wedding planner, was another hyped wedding startup, receiving $7m in funding and ink in The New York Times. In 2017, Lover.ly pulled its app and laid off nearly its entire staff, and an expected sale fell through. It is essentially a blog once again (And that’s not a great thing to be, because The Knot and its new partner WeddingWire own the national wedding blog ecosystem).
The trajectory of a companies like Bloomerent and Our Story Bridal, which is still bootstrapped, are more the norm. Bloomerent founder and CEO Danit Zamir bootstrapped her company, founded in 2014, for the first 3.5 years before receiving outside funding.
She started out by posting about her business on message boards until she got kicked off and eventually received publicity from Martha Stewart Weddings and the podcast “How I Built This.” She still has only five employees.
“I didn’t think it was necessary to be a company where we’re constantly adding people,” Zamir says. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do to say I did it. I know that’s not the sexy answer for tech investors.”
Zamir explains the reluctance of wedding industry investors through a simple calculus: Wedding startups cater to mostly women and are likely to be founded by women. And about 90% of VCs who invest in tech startups are men, who rarely experience the frustrations inherent to wedding planning.
“They’re not immersed in flowers or the wedding space,” Zamir says. “Unless they have maybe their wife who talks about it, they might not understand the need… We have amazing investors who see past that. They do get it. They believe in what we’re doing.”
Zamir’s latest addition to Bloomerent is a matching service available in Los Angeles and the Tri-State area called Bundles. It lets brides choose various floral arrangements –bridal bouquets, centerpieces, boutonnieres etc. — at a specific cost online. Bloomerent then decides which florist can meet their needs and connects the florist with the customer. The typical process for a bride would involve several rounds of negotiating with multiple florists, often in person.
The idea is not a revolutionary change to the wedding industry, just another small improvement that Zamir sees potential for across the industry.
“People are taking that one specific item,” she says, “and making it easier and more affordable.”