Strictly Bridal Business

How to wring every last ­dollar out of the wedding biz. Hint: It has nothing to do with the four Cs.

Styling by Brooke Magnaghi; Hair by Tyler Laswell for Tresemmé/ContactNYC. Makeup by Elisa Flowers at for Dior Cosmetics. Lela Rose Gown: Available at Mark Ingram Bridal Atelier, New York City

A man climbs the stairs of a historic property in downtown Manhattan. His girlfriend has always loved this building, and now that it’s abandoned, it’s the perfect place to pop the question. The folks at Michael C. Fina, a jeweler on Fifth Avenue, have orchestrated everything down to the tiniest, most fragrant detail. Fresh rose petals dot the steps leading to the atrium where the fellow will drop to one knee. There’s champagne on ice, chocolate-covered strawberries, and a photographer perfectly positioned to capture what will undoubtedly be a tearful moment. You can guess where the would-be groom bought the ring.

Selling jewelry is a given, but planning proposals? It helps salespeople “close the deal,” says Teegan Conti, the store’s public relations and special events coordinator. “It’s hard to quantify the effect this has had on our business.”

Michael C. Fina is part of a new breed of retailer that is placing less emphasis on the four Cs and pouring more resources into the emotional aspects of the bridal business—like assisting men with popping the question. Even among bridal designers and wholesalers, there is a push to capitalize on the personal connection with the consumer instead of focusing on the commodity side of the transaction. The ultimate goal? Create a customer for life.

Courtesy of Michael C. Fina

“You have to respect a variety of price points and designs,” says Rhonda Edelman, vice president of education at Hearts On Fire. “But in the end this purchase is about emotion.” (Michael C. Fina, incidentally, earned retailer of the year honors at last fall’s Hearts On Fire University in Las Vegas.)

Retailers and vendors are always looking for unique ways to reach the customer—from trunk shows and bridal consultations to personal stylists, event planners, bridesmaid parties, and engagement-story Facebook contests. One retailer keeps an iPad on hand so salespeople and grooms-to-be can bond over football scores. Dan Scott, chief marketing officer at Scott Kay, says these efforts are crucial: “Stop thinking about the recession and start thinking about progression.”

Courtesy of Michael C. Fina
Michael C. Fina helped this man plan the perfect proposal—right down to the historic New York City locale and fresh rose petals.

Tacori, for instance, has elevated the standard trunk show into something of a science. “We’ve come up with a formula,” says Paul Tacorian, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Anyone can do it. It’s not just my top stores, but all levels of partners. It’s a lot of work, but if you put effort into it, you could do $100,000 worth of sales in a weekend.” 

Tacori provides packets filled with steps to ensure a successful trunk show, promising a 15 percent to 40 percent increase in sales. There’s even a contract that both bridal company and retailer sign promising to follow the steps. Individual stores have flexibility with theme, but there’s usually a hook. Past events have been built around slogans like “Do you want to be a Tacori girl?” or cocktails called “Tacoritinis.” (One version—a Birth of Venus martini—mixes vodka, Cointreau, peach juice, blue Curacao, and champagne.)

Get creative and the payoff can be huge. As most of the industry has discovered, bridal jewelry has proved comparatively recession-proof. The research varies, but several groups peg the worldwide market at about $65 billion. Sales dipped to $58 billion in 2008 but rebounded to approximately $60 billion in 2009.

Courtesy of Tacori
A Tacori “Cocktails & Rocks” party in Brentwood, Calif., drew
alum Elisa Donovan (center) and Dexter star Julie Benz (right).

According to IDEX Online Research, the U.S. bridal jewelry market in 2009 (the latest figures available) was $12 billion—or about 20 percent of all jewelry sales—and is predicted to grow to $15 billion by 2016. In the United States, engagement rings alone account for $7.7 billion annually, with the average purchase price ranging between $4,500 and $6,000.

“Bridal jewelry demand remains strong with ­jewelers reporting that sales are being driven by bridal along with fashion jewelry,” says Edahn Golan, editor in chief of IDEX Online. “Bridal jewelry demand will provide most of the impetus for growth near-term.”

Courtesy of Tacori
The brand puts its own spin on mood lighting at a Hollywood, Calif., event.

And just think of the growth if the industry dropped some of its worst habits. The greatest sin: Only 35 percent of retailers who sell an engagement ring also sell the couple’s wedding rings, according to The Knot Inc. That’s a lot of business left on the table. “There is so much focus on the diamond and the engagement ring, the industry has lost sight of the fact that this is actually a three-ring purchase occasion,” says Huw Daniel, president of Platinum Guild International.

In fact, many bridal wholesalers are trying to get retailers to throw out the diamond conversation altogether. Today’s Millennial customer has done most of his research online before setting foot in a brick-and-mortar store. When he finally ventures in, he’s already quite knowledgeable. Maybe he’s looking for help in the decision-making process or wants to hold a ring in his hand, but, most of all, he wants to be sold.

Most experts advise salespeople to “lead” with the setting. “Sell the design, sell the beauty, sell the romance,” advises Edelman, who says settings have all the magic emotional and personal components to connect to a consumer. Adds Scott: “They’re not shopping for a ring, they’re shopping for a symbol, something they believe will create a bridge between themselves and another person.” Scott Kay has staff step out from behind the counter during this process; a counter is a physical barrier, and often an emotional one.

Don’t underestimate the diamond’s supporting cast—intricate designs, surrounding stones, and metals—particularly when it comes to boosting profits. For instance, Gemological Institute of America senior industry analyst Russell Shor sees an opportunity in colored stones, particularly in the wake of the engagements of Prince William and Kate Middleton and of Jessica Simpson and Eric Johnson. (Middleton is wearing Princess Diana’s ring, a blue sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds, while Simpson is sporting a red ruby flanked by two diamonds.) While traditional diamond solitaires continue to reign, colored gemstones might be an attractive way to personalize a diamond engagement ring…and increase retailers’ ticket price. Not to mention the choice of myriad settings, from ornate vintage glamour to modern simplicity. As Daniel points out: “Savvy retailers know that there’s much more margin in the setting than in the diamonds.”

Courtesy of Michael C. Fina
Another Michael C. Fina–arranged proposal, this one in New York City’s Central Park at Bethesda Fountain (note the champagne waiting to be uncorked)

Finally, add-ons can be the icing on the (wedding) cake. According to The Knot, 59 percent of brides give their bridesmaids jewelry. Pandora charms, for instance, are extremely popular as attendant gifts because of their affordability and ability to be personalized.

Few can ignore the success of Pandora— even in bridal. Pandora add-ons average $750 over a six-month post-wedding period for John O’Rourke, president and CEO of Montica ­Jewelry in Coral Gables, Fla. Bridesmaids come in again and again to fill up their bracelets and will occasionally spring for a David Yurman or Judith Ripka piece, priced between $2,500 and $3,500.

When O’Rourke first suggested setting up a Pandora shop-in-shop in his bridal boutique, his wife and staff resisted. But he believed Pandora could drive traffic, and it has. “My Pandora shop has been busy all day today,” he says. “And that’s day in and day out. I’ve been in the business 16 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. I doubt I’ll ever see anything like it again.”

Pandora is about instant emotional gratification and personalization and, in bridal, that seems to be the name of the game. “I don’t sell jewelry,” says O’Rourke. “I sell dreams.”

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