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Spring 2003 Down the Aisle

There’s going to be a wedding—nearly two and a half million of them, actually. Weddings with all the trimmings are back in vogue, and the wedding market grows larger every year, both in terms of the record number of brides and grooms exchanging vows, and dollars spent on their weddings.

Today, a typical wedding averages 169 guests and costs around $20,000; many cost considerably more. All told, that means the market for everything nuptial—including accessories, favors, keepsakes and gifts—has exploded. And that explosion means there’s room at the “bride’s table” for specialty retailers.

Dream wedding

Remember Father of the Bride, where mom and dad took care of everything for their daughter’s wedding, which got bigger and bigger—including the bills? If not, it’s just as well, because it doesn’t necessarily work that way anymore. Weddings are big once again, but more brides are letting dad off the hook as bank-roller. More couples now pay for some if not all of a dream wedding themselves. Instead of the mother of the bride controlling the planning decisions, it’s the bride and groom who increasingly call the shots.

Not only that, but remarriages are no longer the discreet little off-white, knee-length nuptials they once were. If love is lovelier the second time around, the wedding often is, too: many second-time couples also go all out for their big day.

First, second or whatever, couples today tend to see their wedding as a major event they co-host, a lavish affair for family and friends (and mostly their friends, not mom’s and dad’s). It’s the couple who makes most of the choices and decisions about how the wedding will be announced, staged and outfitted—traditional, trendy, or some combination of the two—down to the last detail. And while many time-honored traditions are still going strong (and in many cases, magnified—take a look at some of today’s wedding cakes),brides increasingly follow their own personal style in planning the look of the event. “These women know who they are and what they want,” says Pamela Graves, managing editor of Giftware News. “[Brides] aren’t completely throwing tradition out the window—they’re modifying it to fit their needs and to better suit their personalities and interests.” Susan Williams, marketing manager for Oddity Inc. (Pottsville, PA), has a similar view: “A wedding becomes an extension of [the bride's] personality and decorating preferences,” she says. “The gifts [for guests] are more personal, and the accessories reflect [the bride's] tastes.”

On paper

One tradition that held for decades was the look, feel and wording of invitations. Wedding invitations (and in last few decades, RSVP cards) have been and still are de rigueur. Yet over the last 20 years, they have evolved to reflect and serve a wide range of tastes and personal styles. Nonetheless, whether engraved, printed or computer-generated, and despite wide choices of colors, designs, materials, degrees of formality and more, wedding invitations are still paper, and still prettily addressed, stamped and mailed.

In addition to invitations, wedding-related paper goods have increased in importance and popularity, and some newer products are also becoming musts—for example, “save-the-date” cards couples send to notify guests well before the actual invitations go out. Other popular paper products range from guest books to table favors like fans and decorative boxes.

Popular”paper”inanother sense are the many wedding books that are also new staples: how-to reference guides ranging from Weddings for Dummies to classic etiquette books like Emily Post’s, plus planning kits, countdown calendars, and little gift books.

Pretty maids all in a row

Today’s wedding typically has a total of 10 attendants, for whom couples still observe another tradition: giving their attendants individual gifts as a special memento and a thank-you for being in the wedding (usually at the attendant’s considerable expense). Couples tend to choose these gifts carefully, which are usually up many notches in cost and substance from the favors they give guests. And if the attendants’ gifts are items that can be personalized, they almost always are. Here’s an overview of some typical gifts:

For the bridesmaids. Jewelry is a long-standing choice, with a new emphasis on sentimental designs. Cynthia Edmunds, associate editor of Bride’s magazine, says favorites include pearl stud earrings, crystal earrings that match the bridesmaids’ dresses, pendants, and perfume flasks. Graves has noticed an increase in non-jewelry items such as luxury candles or elegant bath-and-body gifts., one of the most popular wedding-planning and purchasing sites on the Web, lists a huge assortment of bridesmaids gifts, including all of the above plus some creative choices (good thought-starters for specialty retailers). Their list includes manicure/pedicure sets, decorative boxes, vases, crystal wares, coffee accessories, garden accessories, even a pink army knife, plus jewelry—from bead necklaces to cuff bracelets to rhinestone tiaras.

For the groomsmen. Grooms frequently choose accessories such as a set of tuxedo studs, classic wrist or pocket watch, pen, or special tie or vest for the occasion. Other popular choices: sports-related items, like silver golf tees, or tickets to a basketball game. has even more, including flasks, beer steins, wine tool sets, manicure kits, grill accessories, army knives, and even upscale yo-yos of wood or silver.

For fun. Novelty gifts for the bride and groom at showers and bachelor parties have been common for years. But the couple giving novelty gifts to the wedding party, including the children, is relatively new and increasingly popular. Items can include anything the couple comes up with, but common choices include fun, personalized T-shirts and ball caps. One couple reportedly gave everyone canvas high-top sneakers to wear at the rehearsal—black for the guys, pink for the gals, each pair inscribed by the bride and groom personally. Novelty wedding gifts still go to the bride and groom, of course— shows various items for the getaway car like marking kits and “Bride on Board” signs; black-tie “Do Not Disturb” door hangers; and bride’s or groom’s “survival kits” with aspirin, tissues, antacid, sewing kit, bandages and more, in a wedding-appropriate pouch.

But that’s not all. There are gifts for the couples’, mothers and fathers. Some are novelties, like cufflinks with “Father of the Bride” handwritten in black on white, or lace-trimmed T-shirts with sayings like “Mother of the Groom.” But most gifts for the parents fall into the same categories as those for the attendants.

Favored guests

imageGuests expect a memento of the wedding, and the stakes have gone up: little napkins or matchbooks alone won’t do. Couples tend to spend more on wedding favors than their parents might have. People want to “hold onto things from weddings” they attend, Williams says, “so brides are increasingly looking for commemorative items” for their guests and for themselves, too. And as a result, says Edmunds, the market for wedding favors has “exploded.”

Favors range from traditional, such as time-honored Jordan almonds and other candy such as chocolates, lollipops, or regional specialties (e.g., salt water taffy or maple candy), all prettily packaged, to new and trendy items. “We’re noticing that brides are selecting more non-traditional decorations and colors for their weddings,” says Williams, which of course extends to favors. Couples also come up with innovative uses for traditional accessories, letting them do double-duty as table elements and wedding favors: candle rings as napkin holders, or mini-photo frames as place-card holders. Paper fans, elegant tiny potted ivy, and fresh mini-bouquets in silver julep cups are among current favorites. In any case, favors are personalized (where feasible) with the couple’s names and the wedding date.

In recent years, wedding guests also get little goodies that let them participate in the party: rice or birdseed packets, bubbles, bells, beribboned wedding-cake charms,toasting glasses—again, often personalized, and intended to go home with the guest. One popular item that doesn’t go home with the guest: wedding-packaged single-use cameras. In effect, guests help record the event from their vantage point by snapping away and leaving the cameras at the reception for the couple or family members to develop.

Feathering the nest

More weddings, bigger weddings, longer guest lists add up to more wedding gifts. Not mere tea cozies and tchotchkes, either. Guests spend an average of $106 on a wedding gift. And while the etiquette books say a gift isn’t required if you don’t go to the wedding, people often send one anyway. All told, guests spend $6 billion a year to outfit the happy couple with anything from coasters and toasters to vintage wine.

Couples know what they want: 99 percent of them register for gifts at an average of 2.3 stores, including department stores, mass merchandisers, online retailers and specialty stores, says Edmunds. In effect, couples cover all the bases that way, frequently listing specific patterns and pieces of fine china, crystal, sterling flatware, casual dinnerware and glasses, cookware and accessories, linens, and décor items. Sometimes they list something “untraditional,” from power tools to theater tickets.

If it seems gift registries exclude the specialty retailer, that’s not necessarily the case. Not every guest buys something on a couple’s list, for a number of reasons. Guests might use the list just to get an idea of what the couple wants. Or the list may not include something the guest had in mind. Or it’s on the list but out of their price range. Or the store isn’t in their part of the country, and they want to buy the gift in person. And sometimes the guest wants to be “creative” and doesn’t even look at the list.

imagePartly because today’s newlywed couples are somewhat older, plus the fact that 40 percent live together first, many don’t need the basic household appliances and goods that were mainstay wedding gifts in the past. Instead, says Edmunds, couples want to upgrade the quality or prestige of what they already have, especially as they look ahead to doing more entertaining at home. Here’s a sample of the array of gifts today’s newlyweds want and their guests are buying for them:

For the table. Place settings, serving bowls, platters, pitchers and decanters, special-purpose serving pieces and more. In addition to basics like “everyday” dishes and glasses are stylish specialty items like charger plates, tiered epergnes, and footed cake stands, hot again after many years and sometimes “repurposed.” Cake stands, for example, “aren’t just for cakes anymore,” says Edmunds. Metal, glass or pottery, they can be used to present cheese, cookies or other finger foods—or even the table’s centerpiece.

Fashionable “table dressing” has become important again, too. But instead of tablecloths, more couples ask for place mats and table runners, allowing for more versatile table settings, plus coordinating napkins, napkin rings, salt and pepper sets, candles, and even place-card holders.

Cookware. Men are increasingly involved with cooking, and 85 percent of grooms participate in the gift-selection process, says Joyce Scardina Becker, president of Events of Distinction, a wedding design and special-event company (San Francisco). men push for the practical (and often trendy) gift over the impractical or heirloom. Add those two facts together and it’s the groom who frequently selects the cookware, says Edmunds. And they want new, fun items. “Many couples [already] have all the traditional cooking appliances. Now that they’re getting married, they want… cookware that’s fun, and useful for entertaining.” That can mean things for the kitchen, for grilling outdoors, for serving, and even the latest cookbooks.

Barware. “We’re seeing a resurgence of cocktail parties,” says Edmunds. “Bar tools are big right now as wedding gifts.” Gifts include stemware like martini glasses, vodka “bouquet” sets, ice buckets and tongs, cocktail shakers, glass or ceramic pitchers, handcrafted swizzle sticks, and coasters. “Anything that’s colorful, fun and young” is a hit, as is upscale styling and materials. Edmunds says a couple might register for crystal or etched glasses, then fill in with something like classic clear-glass brandy snifters. Wine accessories are also big. In addition to various types and designs of wine glasses are wine openers, silver or ceramic wine-bottle coasters, silver wine caddies, crystal decanters, and ceramic wine chillers.

Home furnishings. Home décor is hot (note the immense popularity of new-generation TV shows like Trading Spaces). Couples want their living spaces to look up-to-date as well as attractive. As a result, home accessories often become welcome wedding gifts. These can range from bed-and-bath to decorative accessories and tabletop items. The possibilities are endless.

Picture frames. Whether straight off the shelf or personalized, decorative frames are perennially popular wedding gifts. In addition to silver, other metals, wood or ceramic are newer materials like leather, woven fiber, glass mosaic, and paper, in countless styles from Country French to Victorian to ultra-modern.

For something special to put in a frame: decorative “wedding art,” such as that of artist Graham Davidson, who makes three-dimensional collages from prints of her charming colored-pencil drawings (Christian, Jewish or non-denominational). Unlike buying art for someone else—always a question of matching the gift to the recipient’s taste—wedding art allows guests to give an artistic, custom memento of the couple’s wedding day.

The pleasure of your company

“Brides don’t normally go to small retailers because they think smaller shops can’t meet their needs,” says Williams. “As a result, many retailers haven’t pursued the business.” The reason? “It’s a mindset,” she says. Specialty retailers don’t think of themselves as being in the wedding business—if they even think of wedding merchandise at all. And yet it’s fairly easy to get into this lucrative category.

“Wedding couples must acquire a wide array of services and products within a brief period of time,” says Becker. And that can mean a wealth of opportunity for you if you make your wedding-related products or services known. Williams has similar advice: The key is to let shoppers know you can meet their wedding needs. Capturing a share of their business is especially do-able if you stock giftware or other merchandise that can serve as wedding gifts or favors. Even retailers with limited space on carts and kiosks can get on the “receiving line.”

A good start is to set up a display of wedding-related merchandise from your existing products, and label it with a sign or placard that says something like “For the bride” or “June is for weddings!” You may already carry something that’s perfect as wedding favors, perhaps votive holders, or small photo frames, or little ceramic baskets. If so, put them out and put a sign on them. Or group related items as an attractive gift set, also with a sign (“For the bride and groom”). In other words, rethink and reposition some of the merchandise you have on hand as wedding-related, and use signs to point it out to customers.

Of course, you may also decide to add to your existing product lines, too. As brides become more creative and want something new, the secret to bringing them to your business is to offer items they won’t find elsewhere, and in a wide range of choices within the category (e.g., paper goods). By doing that, you create a time-saving, one-stop shopping opportunity to buy some of the latest wedding-related merchandise.

Slice of cake

As soon as two people decide to get married, the planning-shopping-buying frenzy begins. Weddings require wedding “things” for the bride, the attendants, the ceremony, the reception, the guests; and gift things for the newlyweds. Multiply that by today’s record number of full-blown weddings, and it’s a multi-million dollar industry. And an opportunity for specialty retailers. Your slice of the cake is being served.

Marcia Layton Turner -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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