Paying More for the White Dress

(Photo: Lucy Fisher)

(Photo: Lucy Fisher)

In an article for The New York Times Magazine, Catherine Rampell  explores the “wedding markup.”  While planning her own wedding, Rampell was surprised by the lack of transparency in the wedding industry, even with all the wedding-related sites on the Internet:

Wedding vendors seemed to be trying to size me up to figure out how much I’m willing to pay; consumer advocates say this is a common practice, as is charging more for a given service for a wedding than for a “family function” or “corporate event.” Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, recalls that when he was married over a decade ago, one caterer initially quoted him about $60 a head, and then jacked up the price to about $90 per person after realizing the function was a wedding. These are forms of what economists call price discrimination; it sounds unfair, but it’s perfectly legal, and it’s easier to get away with in markets where there’s little price transparency and consumers are relatively uninformed.

Many of the industry experts Rampell interviewed attributed the markup to the fact that brides are usually less-informed “first-time shoppers,” and also to the “once-in-a-lifetime logic”:

Because this event is (ideally) once in a lifetime, that also means that vendors can appeal to consumers’ sentimentality, urging them not to cheap out on the “most important” day of their lives. Because of similar concerns about guilt-tripping salespeople, the Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to provide its bereaved customers with an itemized price list.

Many in the wedding industry wielded this once-in-a-lifetime logic, explaining to me that wedding services are not standardized enough to create a meaningful price aggregator. With books, there’s a single bar code for each product, but it’s hard to do apples-to-apples pricing comparisons between wedding bands or photographers. This argument isn’t incredibly compelling. After all, I can see prices for highly differentiated food-delivery options on sites like Seamless. Locality, a start-up, has been collecting and publishing a menu of prices for services usually considered highly nonstandardized, like massages, day care and dentist visits. Creating something similar for wedding services should not be insurmountably difficult.

Ultimately, Rampell concludes that consumers with strong preferences — the dreaded “Bridezillas” — make the industry particularly resistant to transparency and fair prices. “[I]f there are enough brides out there with strong and specific preferences, who want their weddings to be the special day they always dreamed of, that’s going to push equilibrium prices higher, no matter how transparently they are displayed,” she writes. “In other words, the Bridezillas keep prices high for the rest of us.”

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  1. Voice of Reason says:

    I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that the payment is a “Moral Hazard” in the sense that the bride’s family is expected to foot the bill and is willing to pay anything to make their daughter happy. When the newlyweds are responsible for paying for the wedding, it’s much more barebones. If everybody was like this, I’m sure that the prices everywhere would fall.

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  2. Dynise Basore-Ranfagni says:

    There are huge differences between corporate events and weddings.

    Corporate events are virtually always simple, straight-forward events with easy menu selection limited decor options and changes and a few pre-selected wines and usually a full-bar option or cocktail hour prior to dinner. There is generally a set guest list with very few modifications. There is generally one person making all decisions and payments and the entire event is planned in a few emails and one sit-down visit. The person doing the planning generally has a great deal of experience doing it and things are smooth and well-organized.

    Weddings, virtually never go simply and straight-forwardly. Generally, the person making the decisions is not the person paying, verification must go back and forth. Family issues form both sides come up often and coordination is much more time intensive. One thing gets decided, then changed, then another, then cousin Sally got into a tiff with uncle Oscar and guest counts are changed, then table arrangements are changed. Then the groom’s mother is allergic to the floral arrangements the bride chose (but is she really…since they don’t get along) the mother of the bride decides to make last minute changes less than 48 hours before (even though all the food has been purchased, staffing was done two weeks before and doesn’t understand why she should pay more.)

    From an organizational standpoint, just about any event coordinator will tell you that a wedding is an exponentially higher amount of work for the exact same number of people.

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    • Voice of Reason says:

      I think that there’s also a better chance for a long term relationship with a corporate client than a wedding client. The goal of a wedding is to only have to do it once. You may get referrals, but you won’t get much repeat business (especially because 2nd, 3rd, etc. marriages tend to be simplier and often just courthouse). With a corporate client, you live off of repeat business. Basically, you have the hope that it will be an annual conference or that they’ll use for everything that they do. Then, there’s a certain economy in knowing what they want, and not having to reinvent the wheel every time. Thus, you can charge lower prices.

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  3. Ian says:

    A lot of the reason for the “Wedding Markup” is because of the once in a lifetime aspect, but not in the way you think.

    If ANYTHING goes wrong during a wedding, even things that are beyond your control as a vendor, you can expect to be giving a refund of some kind. I DJ weddings, and I’ve seen brides write down the wrong color for a cake, get a free cake, the caterer run out of food because 20 extra people showed up, free food, or a storm come before all of the outdoor photos are taken, free photographer. This is all because there is no redo and wedding vendors LIVE off of referrals.

    So, unfortunately, it’s not that they’re price gouging. It is that they are building in insurance against the chance they’ll have to refund you, or someone else.

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    • Stephen says:

      This makes a lot of sense to me, that the markup is not an attempt to fleece the customer (not all of it all the time anyway) but rather it’s a risk premium of sorts. Also, having just been married myself, I definitely believe that our vendors spent more time with my better half than they would have spent with a corporate event planner. How 30 vases filled with the same flowers can require 8 consultations, I will never know, but I do know that the florist’s listening skills were worth every penny!

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  4. smallbutmighty says:

    I can’t comment on the price variations in venue rental and catering, but I can comment on the dress. I have sewn for years and sewed my own wedding dress, and I learned that dealing with delicate fabric in white was a very different experience than other sewing that I had done. I had to take constant care not to stain or damage the fabric while I was making the dress, and it had to be transported and stored with care. I imagine this was likely true of the raw fabric as well. It seems reasonable that the added care needed for the raw materials of wedding dresses contributes to their final cost. They’re pretty high maintenance.

    For what it’s worth, I spent around $600 to make my dress, and was told by friends who saw it that it would have cost $10,000+ for something equivalent. I don’t think I would make another one if someone paid me $10,000! It took weeks, and its construction required much seam-ripping, wine consumption, and swearing.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I grew up in a home stuffed with satins and tafettas due to my mother’s sewing business. White peau de soie doesn’t stain any worse than any other pale color, nor is it any harder to sew on or to protect from damage than the same fabric in any other color. Bridal satin in baby pink is just as much a problem as bridal satin in pure white—or bridal satin in yellow or mint green.

      The main differences are embellishments (bridal gowns may have thousands hand-sewn beads and sequins) and the number and complexity of alterations. The bride wants her gown to fit perfectly, and some (not all) of her alterations may involve moving hundreds of those little beads. The bridesmaids want the fit to be pretty good, and their alterations don’t usually involve moving beads or lace.

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  5. kara says:

    As a wedding vendor myself (photographer), I’d just like to point out a couple of things.

    First of all a “bridezilla” (at least in the photography world) is not a bride with “strong preferences”. I love clients with strong preferences who know what they want and are willing to work with me to get it. A “bridezilla” is a bride with completely unreasonable expectations and demands who insists that it’s her way or the highway because she’s the bride.

    Second, clients who book weddings have drastically different expectations from clients who book corporate events, as one of the previous commenters pointed out. I spent 4x as much time with a wedding client who wants constant feedback and reassurance as I do with a corporate client who tells me what they want, signs the contracts, and I don’t hear from them again until it’s time to photograph their event. Plus, as was pointed out in an earlier comment, you’re often dealing with multiple “clients” for a single event as you have to balance the wants and needs of the couple, their individual families, the person who is paying (often not the same as the people getting married), etc.

    Third, because of the emotional aspect of a wedding, if something goes wrong that is out of the vendor’s control, the client is much more likely to sue the vendor for insane sums of money over a corporate client (or even a non-wedding related party). My liability insurance costs doubled when I added professional liability for weddings vs other types of events.

    I get tired of reading over and over that it’s “price gouging” to charge more for weddings. It’s not. Weddings are MORE WORK than any other type of client or event. If someone doesn’t charge more for a job where they put in more time, then they’re bad business-people and will soon go out of business.

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  6. Steve says:

    Semi-related: I’d like to see the correlation between the amount people spend (relative to their income) on weddings and marriage success.

    Also, has anyone identified the social catalyst for the Bridezilla phenomenon?

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    • Shaula Bayadere says:

      My husband and I spent $100 on our wedding in 1976 and we are still married. His step-sister had a $20,000 (1980 dollars, so do the math to estimate the cost today) wedding and her marriage lasted six months.

      The “bridezilla” phenomenon is so sad. It seems that the one day, the wedding day, is all that the poor girl will ever have control over for the rest of her life. Blow that day, baby, and there is no redemption, ever. It seems like a nod to letting the man dominate everything else “as long as you both shall live.”

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      • anon says:

        Married in 1986, justice of the peace, $50. Wedding breakfast for four at Denny’s, $40. Flowers from the gas station, $10. Total: $100. Married 27 years.

        I have been to two weddings where the marriages didn’t last (should I say the marriages didn’t ‘take’) and were over before the weddings were paid for. One was a more mundane affair (reception at the VFW hall), the other was a pricey affair at an expensive hotel, reception in the ballroom. Both married parties called it quits literally as soon as the honeymoon was over. What are the odds, two marriages. and what could possibly have gone so wrong so fast? but there it was, thousands spent and they were over with the bills still coming in (according to the brides parents). Sad.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      We spent right about $2,000 in 1993, or about three week’s income, including paying for a sit-down dinner at a restaurant for 30 out-of-state guests (if we didn’t have so many people from so far away, we’d have just had cake and punch) and buying a suit for my husband that he wore for several years afterwards. Our 20th anniversary was last month.

      I don’t think that we were charged Bridezilla prices. We personally knew most of our vendors from church, and we didn’t give them any hassle at all. Planning the music, for example, involved telling the organist the time and place, the names of the two songs that we wanted, and telling her to pick out whatever else she wanted. Planning the wedding cake involved walking into the bakery and telling her the name of the restaurant, the number of people who were likely to attend the reception, and that Jim, the florist she’d gone to church with for decades, would send over some flowers for the top. The only “decision” we made was that it would be half chocolate and half white cake. All of these details took about one day to arrange. Compared to tracking down mailing addresses for the great-aunts who would be hurt if they weren’t invited to drive halfway across the country, this was simple and easy.

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  7. Laura {Babb Photo} says:

    I am a wedding photographer and I am quite happy to admit that the prices I charge for 8 hours of wedding coverage are different to my prices for 8 hours’ coverage at a corporate event.

    I have usually done at least a day’s work meeting the clients (twice usually, once before they book and once before the wedding), contacting their venues, planning their photography before I even start photographing the day. On the day I often travel for two hours before I even start working, I then photograph for 8 -12 hours and travel another couple of hours home. I then spend up to a week editing the pictures.

    Weddings are stressful, fast paced, involve you juggling the expectations of your clients, their friends and family, ceremony officials, they involve dealing with variable lighting conditions, rain (I am based in the UK), they sometimes involve working for 7 hours or more at a time without a break and you only get one chance to get it right.

    When shooting a corporate event you are not subjected to the same pressures.

    I do well from my business but I am hardly well off (I live in a shared rented house with my husband and two friends…). I work a minimum of six days a week, often for 10+ hours a day during peak season and I am constantly conscious of my obligations to and the expectations of my clients.

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  8. jane says:

    In my experience uttering the word “wedding” increased blood pressure and prices at least two-fold. I planned our party in MA over the phone from California, and I learned very quickly that mentioning “wedding” leads to a much higher initial quote and a long conversation along the lines:
    - do you need a pretty table to display the cake?
    - no
    - do you need space to park more than a dozen limos?
    - no
    - do you need…

    Once I started shopping for a “family party for X people with open bar and dancing”, everything became less stressful and more reasonable price-wise.

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    • Fiona Campbell Photography says:

      Personally I don’t charge extra for weddings. I charge what I need to charge and what I can charge. I don’t believe in penalising people for getting married, I believe in giving fantastic service and creating truly beautiful images. Like most of the wedding vendors I know, I am not in it for the money (though I do intend to make sure my family are provided for). I am often surprised by how little brides expect to pay for services. There are many wedding togs out there working for less than the minimum wage, and that’s no way to ensure good quality photographs. Pay for cheap and you will get cheap. A good rule of thumb is to put aside 10% of your wedding budget to ensure that you get stunning photographs that will inspire your marriage and allow you to relive your wedding day.

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