Mar 28, 2010
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Retailers look at bridal wear to groom new markets

Mar 28, 2010

By Nivedita Bhattacharjee

BANGALORE, March 26 (Reuters) - The crowded U.S. apparel industry rarely gives companies a chance to explore new concepts, but retailers are now waking up to a mid-tier wedding market as they try to offer brides-to-be the dress that won't cost the moon, but still make heads turn.

For an apparel industry burdened with too many stores from too many brands, this untapped market gives retailers a chance to expand and make a few extra dollars in the process.

Earlier this month, Urban Outfitters Inc (URBN.O) said it would launch a new line catering to wedding shoppers, while White House Black Market, owned by Chico's FAS Inc (CHS.N), also unveiled a wedding collection.

J Crew Group Inc (JCG.N) too announced plans to launch its first dedicated wedding shop, to act as a platform for the company's wedding products.

And while the concept is not likely to boost revenues remarkably, FBR analyst Adrienne Tennant said "(retailers) have just started to recognize that there are dollars there to be spent."

"It's an opportunity to fill an under-serviced niche and they recognize it," she said.

Till now, companies like Ann Taylor Inc (ANN.N) and J Crew have been among the very few national chains that cater to this market.

Bridal wear, part of the $45 billion U.S. wedding industry, ranges from high-end designer wear like Vera Wang to off-the-rack options, but leaves a wide gap in the middle.

Sherrie Mathieson, a New York-based style consultant who has worked with celebrities like Brooke Shields and Billy Joel, agreed that "there seems to be nothing much in the in-between market."

And with consumer spending slowly coming back, it seems like a good time for apparel companies to focus on this market.

"Some clients will always have money for what they want, but others are dependant on the economy," Mathieson said.

"But things are getting better and it reflects in their buying."

The average cost of a wedding in the United States, which has been dropping since 2007, is expected to remain flat at about $20,000 in 2010, according to Wedding Report, a research firm that tracks and forecasts wedding market trends.

"I think we are done with the decline," Wedding Report founder and Chief Executive Shane McMurray said. PRICING THE RUFFLES

While the price of a wedding dress from Vera Wang's collections can run more than $12,000, retailers like David's Bridal offer dresses for as little as $99.

Bridging this gap, while offering value for money, is the biggest challenge for the new entrants, as they also battle local designers who can often recreate or improvise on designs and embellishments at far cheaper rates.

Still, companies like J Crew, Urban and Chico's should benefit from a loyal customer base, said BRIDES magazine Editor-in-Chief Millie Martini Bratten.

At J Crew's, White House Black Market and AnnTaylor Stores Corp's (ANN.N) bridal wear average about $600 to $800.

Urban Outfitters is expected to be more pricey, but the company is looking to go beyond dresses and be a one-stop wedding store, selling invitations, decorations and the like.

"What's attractive for Urban is that they are hearing from that Anthropologie customer base, and that customer is telling them there is a vacuum -- that they can't find a wedding boutique serving their needs," analyst Betty Chen of Wedbush, who covers specialty apparel, said.

Urban's Anthropologie line of upscale bohemian wear caters to professional women.

Chen added that the wedding concept also offers an opportunity for companies like Men's Wearhouse Inc (MW.N), a leading provider of tuxedo rentals.

"While you are seeing retailers cater to the female side, not many are doing it for men."

Men's Wearhouse could possibly collaborate "with some of these (women's) retailers for more lead generation and first mover advantage in booking the rentals," she said.

(Reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee; Editing by Anthony Kurian, Jarshad Kakkrakandy)

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