SHANGHAI: COVID-19 wasn't kind to wedding planners in China, where marriages are traditionally elaborate, expensive affairs, but the industry estimated at almost US$500 billion is now facing a bigger threat: A plunge in the number of couples willing to tie the knot.
The trend, which has become more obvious as the economy weakens and consumer confidence wanes, is also worrying officials trying to revive marriage, and birth, rates which dropped to record lows last year, leading to the first decline in population numbers in 60 years.
"The number of marriages is falling and few are willing to spend a lot on weddings," said Yuan Jialiang, who ran a full-scale wedding planning business for almost a decade in Shanghai before switching to focus on wedding photography before the pandemic.
"The future of this industry doesn't look promising."
There were 6.8 million marriages across China last year, 800,000 fewer than in 2021 and the lowest since the government began publishing the data in 1986.
This drop in marriage registrations will exacerbate the decline in births in China, now one of the world's fastest-ageing societies. Many cities deny unmarried mothers child-raising or healthcare subsidies and having children out of wedlock is often frowned upon.
"You have a lot of consumers that are just saying 'well, you know, marriage isn't the right thing for me' and a lot of younger adults in China feel that raising kids is just too expensive," said Ben Cavender, managing director and head of strategy at China Market Research Group.
"The traditional Chinese wedding industry is probably in for tough times."
Before the pandemic hit, weddings were big business in China, with Daxue Consulting estimating the industry to be worth 3.6 trillion yuan (US$487 billion) in 2020.
Couples traditionally splash out on gold jewellery, elaborate decor and luxury venues but Frank Chen, from Chen Feng Wedding Planning in Shanghai, says few weddings this year had a budget of more than 100,000 yuan (US$13,736).
"People are more inclined to go for a simple and niche wedding," said Chen, adding that a decade ago, it was common for couples to spend millions of yuan.
Many weddings planned for 2022 were postponed by COVID-19 lockdowns, resulting in a busier 2023 for some firms.
Jewellery companies Chow Tai Fook and TSL said they expect demand for wedding jewellery this year to return to pre-pandemic levels.
TSL, however, said the long-term future of the industry would depend on the strength of the economy.
"It's just the COVID backlog," said wedding planner Xueyi, whose business in Xi'an and Shanghai has also seen a spike this year. "Some of my clients who had bookings rescheduled have actually separated."
"NICHE, NICHE, NICHE"
The economic downturn has hit the middle class, and the youth, the hardest, resulting in high jobless rates and low household spending.
Wealthier consumers appear to be better insulated against the macroeconomic headwinds and Jewel Wang, owner of a network of stores selling wedding dresses by US designer Vera Wang, expects companies specialising in high-end or bespoke services to fare better than those in the low-to-mid-ranges.
Wang, who is also founder of Nora's bridal boutique in Shanghai which stocks luxury gowns from designers including Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, said June was the best month in a decade due to pent-up demand.
"For us it makes more sense to find the next bride who can afford our products versus capturing a greater part of the market," she added.
Still, she was cautious about the future.
"As a market we see an absolute downturn in spending. Our strategy has been to stay niche, niche, niche," said Wang.