American giant David’s Bridal trains into Ottawa

Ottawa bride Melissa Jeurgensen calls herself a “modest” shopper rather than a “thrifty” one. She would rather spend more to make her wedding reception memorable for her 120 guests or save it for a down payment on a house than blow it on her bridal gown.

“Budget is pretty important,” the 27-year-old acknowledges. “Say Yes To The Dress scares me. It’s like these dresses are $3,000 at the low end. And then it’s up to $50,000. It’s just crazy. It’s not reality.”

So it’s perhaps not surprising that when Jeurgensen’s mom flies to Ottawa to help her pick out a dress for her August wedding in her hometown of Kelowna, B.C., that their first stop will be the new David’s Bridal store at the Train Yards.

Bridal industry insiders and the U.S. business press have dubbed David’s Bridal the “Walmart of bridalwear.”

It’s true that the 60-year-old company, which boasts 310 stores in North America – including the new store in Ottawa – is a Goliath. One-third of all brides in the U.S. are outfitted at David’s, about 400,000 to 500,000 a year. And they’re frugal, those David’s brides. While the average expenditure on a wedding dress in the U.S. is about $1,700, the most a David’s bride can spend is $1,500 for a gown from the exclusive White by Vera Wang line.

Like Walmart, price is one of the reasons David’s is tough competition. With a tight grip on the supply chain and enormous volume, the Philadelphia-based chain offers sale prices are as low as $99.

Even before a David’s store opened at the Ottawa Train Yards last month — Mayor Jim Watson was at the ribbon-cutting — many local brides were making the trek to David’s stores in upstate New York in search of a bargain. It’s no wonder Canada’s homegrown wedding industry is feeling jittery.

Jeurgensen doesn’t think of David’s as the Walmart of bridal shops. “They still carry Vera Wang,” she says. “It’s not the top Vera Wang, but it’s still her designs.”

She has something strapless in mind for her dress, with an A-line skirt and perhaps a bit of beading. “I would like to spend less than $1,000. I have friends who spent less, and their dresses were stunning.” If she sees something she really likes, she’ll push her budget to $1,500.

The Train Yards store is the fourth David’s to open in Canada. Two opened in the Toronto area last year and one in Winnipeg two weeks ago, with a fifth David’s scheduled to open in Edmonton later this year.

Craig Debenham, vice-president of stores for David’s, says the chain took a good part of its 60 years of life to develop its business model. It doesn’t see itself as the Walmart of bridalwear, he says.

“We are what we call a ‘ready for you’ business. A bride can find a gown in her size, her style, her colour. Instead of taking up to six months to custom-order a dress from a sample, many brides can walk in and find exactly what they want and walk out with it.”

The chain’s bridalwear lines include its in-house David’s and Galina lines, as well as Oleg Cassini — the designer died in 2006, but his name still holds some lustre because of his association with Jacqueline Kennedy — and Vera Wang, who signed on to lend her name to a line for David’s last year, to the consternation of high-end boutiques who carry the “real” Vera Wang. (There’s enough tulle in one of the White for Vera Wang’s ballgowns to run the length of a football field, David’s points out.)

All David’s gowns are made offshore, often in China. Most are polyester. Brides can accessorize their bridal parties with 42 accent colours, most bridesmaids’ dresses cost less than $150 and David’s does a booming business in special event and prom dresses. Staff seamstresses can do alternations overnight if necessary, says Debenham.

“She can walk out with her dress today. We have brides who are getting married tomorrow. It’s one of things that sets us apart.”

Toronto bridal designer Adele Wechsler knows that Jeurgensen isn’t the only bride who doesn’t see David’s as the Walmart of bridal wear. It’s one of the reasons why she is scaling back her business after 29 years.

Weschler’s gowns, all made in Toronto of natural fibres such as silk, have been featured in magazines all over North America. But now she is taking only custom orders and producing small numbers of gowns for boutiques. She has moved her studio to her home and is not producing new collections.

Wechsler says her business peaked just before the recession hit in 2008. Since then, she says, there has been an “over-saturation” of bridalwear, not only from David’s but also from Asian copycats who poach website images from designers and produce knock-offs. At the same time, major U.S, chains, including Anthropolgie and J. Crew, have also introduced bridal lines. With prices falling, it has been hard from some brides to justify spending hundreds or thousands more, Wechsler says.

“It devalues your product. It’s the psychology of it.”

Only a few years ago, 15 to 20 per cent of brides were willing to splurge on a gown, paying between $2,000 and $3,000. That slice of the moderate-to-high-end pie has shrunk to about three per cent, Wechsler estimates.

“There’s so much supply for a market that is not growing. It’s not a battle I feel like fighting.”

Andrea Lown has been watching David’s entry into Canada with interest. Not only can she already see the effect on the Canadian bridal industry, but she knows there will be trickle-down effects to her Toronto-based business, a resale wedding gown website that serves North America and gets about 60,000 unique visitors a month looking at about 4,000 posted gowns. The site also features clearance items and samples from bridal shops.

If a bride sells her gown within the first year or two after wearing it, she is usually able to recoup half the cost, says Lown. One survey showed that almost three-quarters of brides would be willing to consider a resale dress and statistics suggest that 10 per cent actually buy a used gown, says Lown. But the arrival of David’s in Canada means that brides here might be more likely to buy a new gown instead. The majority of brides do their research online, but are often disappointed by the lack of information on bridal store websites.

The David’s website has photos, details and prices on its website, and stocks sizes from 0 to 22. So, instead of buying from an independent retailer based on a sample, Lown can see brides might choose to waltz into David’s, pluck something off the rack for less money than they would pay elsewhere, and leave with the gown.

“David’s has such good buying power. You can get a high-quality gown for the same price. Why would someone buy something from a no-name designer when they can get a Vera Wang at David’s for the same price?

“We’ve noticed a lot of shops going out of business. They can’t compete. We see the pain.”

Lown, who is often invited to speak at wedding industry events, sees other problems in the bridal business. Company websites are unimaginative or uninformative. Storefronts and interiors need to be updated. If a bride walks into a store and the carpet is dirty, that really tarnishes the experience, says Lown. David’s is light and bright, and brides feel good about it.

Still, Lown believes there is plenty of opportunity for small bridal retailers. She was a bride herself in 2007. She went shopping and found that most boutiques told her would have to order from a sample and wait for months before her gown arrived. Price wasn’t as much an issue as speed. She bought a $600 sample gown, a size 10, and paid $300 to have it altered to her size 0 frame.

She notes that her own experience with a small shop included great after-sales experience. When she went to pick up her gown, there was a package that included double-sided tape and a tool kit, a sort of Swiss Army knife for the bride. Both came in handy on her wedding day, and she appreciated the thoughtfulness behind the gesture.

“Shops can differentiate themselves by saying ‘We’re not David’s Bridal. We’ll hold your hand. If you want the experience, we’ll give it to you,’ ” says Lown.

In Ottawa, The White Dress, a boutique on Preston Street, carries names familiar with the red carpet cognoscenti, including Vera Wang, Monique Lhuillier, Badgley Mischka and Ramona Keveza. The boutique recently became only the 35th in the world and the third in Canada to carry Oscar de la Renta’s upscale bridal line.

For brides on a budget, David’s works, says owner Jasmine Craig. But a polyester dress made in China isn’t the same as a handcrafted silk gown made in New York City, “which is what you’re getting with the Vera Wang label,” Craig says. “We’re really style-savvy here. I consider myself more of a stylist and a consultant.”

Craig’s business partner, wedding planner Stacey Price, says their brides want an experience. “A big chain doesn’t provide the same level of service or intimacy.”

Jeurgensen has five bridal stores on her shopping list and hopes she finds the dress of her dreams within a day and under budget.

“It’s a dress. You’ll wear it one day, but it’s a special day. I hope I get that feeling you’re supposed to get when you try on THE dress.”

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