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Don’t buy a ‘wedding dress’ for your wedding

A woman tries on a wedding dress at a bridal fashion trade show. She's probably going to pay too much. (PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)

It often feels like any good or service that has the word "wedding" attached to it is one that comes with a particularly jaw-dropping price tag.

And so as you write a steady stream of three- and four-figure checks in the run-up to your Big Day, it can be hard not to wonder: How much would this caterer charge if he thought I was throwing a corporate event instead of getting married? Would this stationer recommend fancy letterpress printing if she thought I was sending invitations to a birthday party?

New research from fashion analytics firm Edited examines whether our perception of an "I Do" premium is a reality when it comes to one of the most sentimental of wedding purchases: The gown.

Edited studied thousands of e-commerce listings for white wedding dresses across mass-market retailers such as J. Crew, Nordstrom, H&M and Asos and compared the pricing of those items to the pricing of dresses that were comparable in design but not described as bridal gowns in any related text or keywords. The analysis found that, on average, retailers were charging 3.9 times as much for the wedding dresses.

And it's not just the bride that can end up shelling out big bucks for wedding day attire: Researchers found that frocks marked as bridesmaid dresses were 1.8 times more expensive than like items that were not labeled bridesmaid dresses.

[Looking for the lowest prices on Amazon? You may have to dig a little.]

While the study examined only online prices, Katie Smith, senior retail analyst at Edited, said it’s likely that shoppers won’t find a particularly different situation if they shop for gowns at brick-and-mortar chains. Most big retailers these days try to have harmony across their e-commerce and in-store prices, because they know shoppers check out both channels.

So why are dresses so much pricier when they're meant for walking down the aisle? Smith said that retailers are likely hiking prices as a way of telegraphing to customers that a certain dress — or a pair of shoes or earrings, for that matter — is worthy of a day when all eyes are on you.

"There's an element of knowing that to make it seem like an occasion dress, an elevated price point is going to help spread that message," Smith said.

Plus, as this reporter can attest after tying the knot last month, buying a bridal gown is not like buying dish detergent or filling your gas tank. It's an emotional purchase, not a practical one, and retailers likely factor that in to their pricing strategies.

Edited's data also suggests that wedding attire might be providing a much-needed tailwind for some mid-price apparel businesses, which have fallen on tough times as consumers shift their spending to gadgets and to experiences such as dining out. At J. Crew — which has struggled with disappointing sales overall — bride and bridesmaid dresses sell out 1.4 times faster than everyday frocks.

[Saying yes to a $1,357 dress: What America spends on weddings]

At Free People bride and bridesmaid dresses are selling out 7 percent faster. While that difference is not as dramatic as at J. Crew, Smith said it still suggests it means the category is a sweet spot for the brand. Free People is owned by Urban Outfitters, and this finding seems consistent with what executives have said they are seeing elsewhere within the company. While they are recording "double-digit" sales growth at the nascent Bhldn wedding brand, sales have been weak at its Anthropologie chain, which has a similar aesthetic but offers casual and workday attire.

Macy's, another mid-price retailer, has recently revamped its wedding business because it believes this category could be a major growth driver. The department store has hired stylists to work with brides and grooms on Big Day looks and has outfitted some stores with lounges that make it easy for brides to try on dresses for a gaggle of family and friends.

When looking at the wider wedding products category — which includes not only bridal gowns, but veils, accessories, and attire for bridesmaids and mothers of the bride — Researchers at Edited found that there was an 80 percent year-over-year increase in new items offered for sale online in the first quarter. That would seem to suggest that retailers believe shoppers are growing more comfortable with the idea of buying these investment pieces online without trying them on first.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly suggested that the difference in bride and bridesmaid-dress sellout rates compared with regular dresses was greater at Free People than at J. Crew. 





The winning design at the 12th annual "Toilet Paper Wedding Dress Contest" in New York was cobbled together using 10 mega rolls of Charmin. (Video: Reuters)