IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Wal-Mart of weddings

More than 2.2 million women will get married in the United States this year. About one-third of them will be outfitted by one company: David's Bridal.
Image: David's Bridal
David's Bridal celebrates the opening of its first New York City store in March. The store on Sixth Avenue at 25th Street, is one of more than 300 David's Bridal locations nationwide.Diane Bondareff / Polaris
/ Source: The Big Money

With June at its mid-way point, consider this: More than 2.2 million women will get married in the United States this year. About one-third of them will be outfitted by one company: David's Bridal.

With more than 300 stores throughout the country and a growing online presence, the retailer offers unbeatable prices on a wide selection of mass-produced gowns.

While the average wedding gown costs $1,075, according to Condé Nast Bridal Media, the average David's Bridal dress retails at only $550. Some sell for just $99. It has been called the "Wal-Mart of weddings," and, like the blue big-box giant, David's Bridal may be poised to emerge from the recession as an even more formidable retail force.

Many small independent dress shops have shuttered recently due to the economic downturn. Meanwhile, David's Bridal is in the midst of what it calls "an ambitious expansion program." The company is sitting pretty compared with the rest of specialty retail.

David's Bridal is privately held, so while it doesn't publish revenue figures, Thomson Reuters estimates that its sales were $683 million in 2008.

"I would say it's actually performed relatively well in this recession," says Jackie Oberoi, a credit analyst at Standard & Poor's, who reported that by the end of the third quarter, sales were up about 3 percent over 2007. She estimates that David's Bridal has added about 15 to 30 stores annually since 1999. Even in the past year's gloomy retail environment, it opened 20 stores. The brand's budget-friendly reputation appears to be paying off.

As the retailer unveiled its new Manhattan store this spring, CEO Robert Huth acknowledged the company's unique position, saying, "Although many retail stores have been closing locations due to difficult economic times, David's Bridal is proud to open its heart and doors to the people of New York City."

The newly opened store has a utilitarian feel: racks and racks packed with plastic-wrapped gowns, organized systematically by price and size (2 through 26). There are no champagne toasts or doting bridal consultants. Most of the bustling brides pick through the dresses like they're shopping for groceries. The styles range from trendy cuts to classic silhouettes, but almost all the gowns have one thing in common — they're made of the fabric that nary a bride wants to speak of too loudly: polyester.

Still, customers don't expect to find high-end silk gowns at David's Bridal. And brides have never gone there because it's a fancy place.

"The first store didn't even have carpet on the floor," says Phil Youtie, former executive and founder of the David's Bridal empire. (The company gets its name from a small bridal shop that Youtie bought out early in his career.) In 1990, Youtie began selling deeply discounted gowns on pipe racks in a Florida warehouse. At the time, most bridal shops only stocked dresses in sample sizes, so customers would have to wait months for their own dresses to be manufactured, delivered, and altered. '

"We wanted to have all of our dresses right then and there," explains Youtie. David's Bridal not only offered on-the-spot purchases but also bargain-basement prices. Youtie boasts, "Everybody loved the idea."

Well, not quite everybody loved it. In fact, lots of people in the wedding industry loathe David's Bridal. That's because, for years, bride after bride has jilted her local boutique and purchased a dress from the chain instead.

"Whenever a David's opens up, business drops instantly," says Sally Conant, executive director of the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists. Most small shops can't afford to stock dresses in every size or discount their merchandise as deeply as David's Bridal does. Because its dresses are typically made with cheap materials, manufactured abroad, and purchased in bulk, they're some of the least costly gowns available. As a result, David's Bridal claims an estimated 50 percent of the $600-and-under wedding dress market.

The current economic downturn could be the perfect storm that David's Bridal needs to capture even more market share. While the recession hasn't deterred couples from tying the knot, it has shrunken their budgets substantially. The average cost of getting married in the United States slipped in the first quarter to $19,212, according to the Wedding Report, a market research firm. That's down from $21,814 last year and $26,450 in 2005.

Brides-to-be are opting for cupcakes instead of wedding cakes, downsizing their guest lists, and, yes, compromising on what may have been the dress of their girlhood dreams. According to a recent survey, 55 percent of brides plan to spend no more than $600 on their dresses.

That means that those who may not have set foot inside a discount shop like David's Bridal in the past are venturing in. "I think they're considering it even more than ever," says Gail Malecot, a bridal retail consultant. "These girls want to spend less on their weddings, across the board, from dresses to chair covers," she says.

The real test for David's Bridal—and most budget-friendly retailers today—will come when the economy rebounds. Of course, therein lies the big difference between David's Bridal and Wal-Mart: People shop at Wal-Mart regularly, whereas David's Bridal is presumably seeing most of its customers for only one purchase (or not much more than one).