Image: Jewlery counter
Carissa Ray  /  MSNBC.com
A customer looks at jewelry at a Wal-Mart in Federal Way, Wash. The average overall cost of an engagement ring is about $5,355.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/12/2007 8:04:14 AM ET 2007-07-12T12:04:14

After Jennifer Brock and her fiance decided to get married, they began a predictable hunt for the perfect engagement ring.

They found their quarry in an unexpected place: a discount club store.

“We looked at some of the regular jewelry stores and we just really didn’t see anything that we really liked, or if we did it was very expensive,” Brock said.

Then, while shopping at Sam’s Club, Brock, 30, just happened to look over the jewelry counter.

“I saw my ring and was like, ‘I love it,’” she said.

For years, brides and grooms have been hearing about the daunting — and rising — price of an average American wedding. Now some are striking back, snubbing high-end florists, bridal boutiques and even jewelers in favor of bigger bargains at places like Target, Costco and Wal-Mart.

The big-box discounters are expanding their wedding-related offerings and promotions as well, in the hopes of luring brides, already comfortable with registering for gifts at the giant retailers, to also consider buying anything from a dress to a cake.

The moves come as the average cost of a wedding has reached $27,852, according to a study by Conde Nast Bridal Media.

Target, already known for its “cheap chic” suits, T-shirts and other items, began offering wedding dresses on its Web site this year for as little as $89.99. That’s a far cry from the thousands of dollars brides routinely spend on the single-use gowns.

Video: Wedded bliss, Vegas style

Minneapolis-based Target also is offering discounted wedding shoes, veils, gloves, flower girl baskets, guest books and other wedding accessories. Company officials say they have been pleased with sales so far.

“We’re seeing the recognition from our guests that high fashion doesn’t have to mean high price,” spokeswoman Amy von Walter said.

But while wedding dresses are being sold on Target's Web site, there are no current plans to bring the line into the company's stores, von Walter said.

“When you look at our stores, I’m not sure that we felt that was the appropriate venue for our wedding line,” she said.

Rival Wal-Mart is pushing lower-cost wedding invitations at newly built “celebration centers” in many of its stores. Over the past six months alone the company has increased the space in its stores devoted to wedding-themed items, spokeswoman Tara Raddohl said. Wal-Mart wedding cakes also are a popular choice, she said.

“When we look at the whole category, we’ve had tremendous growth over the past year and a half,” Raddohl said.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer recently hosted seven weddings in its stores as part of a promotion for July 7, 2007, considered by some brides to be an especially lucky day. The events included wedding cake, party food and other items from Wal-Mart. Raddohl said it was too early to say whether the 07/07/07 promotion would help boost sales of wedding items.

Costco Wholesale Corp., the membership club known for selling everything from bulk office supplies to big packages of lunch meat, also has gotten into the wedding business. It offers wedding flowers, including bridal bouquets and corsages, as well as keepsake items such as guest books and engagement rings. The company’s Web site even lists a destination wedding package that includes a nine-night stay and comes complete with a Tahitian wedding ceremony, starting at  $4,080 per person. The Issaquah, Wash.-based company did not return calls seeking comment.

At Sam’s Club, a unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., senior diamond buyer Tina Corley said the company has seen double-digit percentage growth in its engagement ring business every year since launching the effort six years ago.

The average sales price for a Sam’s Club engagement ring is about $3,000, Corley said, although the company did sell a $185,000 ring to a couple in Kentucky.

The average overall cost of an engagement ring is about $4,435, according to Conde Nast Bridal Media.

Corley said many couples who buy engagement rings from Sam’s are preparing to celebrate a second or third marriage. That translates into a savvier shopper, but also a shopper with more buying power.

“They’re going to step up from that first marriage,” she said.

Experienced brides and grooms also may be more practical about seeking out bargains. In addition to buying the ring, more couples are coming to Sam’s for cake, champagne, wine or other reception items, such as chocolate dessert fountains, officials say. Sam’s has periodically promoted its wedding offerings in magazines and elsewhere, spokeswoman Susan Koehler said.

Brock, who is planning an outdoor wedding for 150 people on Sept. 8, was so taken by the engagement ring she found at Sam’s Club that she began looking for other wedding items there. For the catered reception, she found plastic plates there similar to those she had seen in a bridal magazine, but at a lower cost. Brock also is getting forks and napkins from the discounter.

Brock, who happily found her wedding dress in the JCPenney prom dress section for $99, said she wants the wedding day to be fun and memorable for her family and friends — but without breaking the bank.

“We feel like there’s more things that we’d like to spend our money on than the wedding,” she said. “We’d like to have a better honeymoon.”

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