Commentary: Bridal studios and deposits – beware of putting too much down for your big day
Beautiful Love Wedding studio closed last week, prompting questions over the potentially predatory nature of the bridal industry. Priyanka Elhence dishes out some perspective on the matter.
SINGAPORE: The sudden and unexpected shuttering of bridal studio Beautiful Love Wedding this month left many couples in the lurch.
Customers who had already paid deposits for packages with the studio weren’t able to contact anyone from the company after it closed down, despite company officials stating they were proactively reaching out to the affected clients.
As of last week, 34 complaints have been lodged with with the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) about the studio’s closure.
What makes the bridal industry and its customers so vulnerable to such risks?
SUDDEN CLOSURES THE NORM
It’s not the first time we’ve heard of a reputed bridal studio going belly up.
Last year, two studios, For You Wedding Services and The Aisle Bridal Boutique, closed shop. It was estimated that customers lost at least S$164,000 in payments then, compared to the S$103,000 forked out in prepayments by customers in the Beautiful Love Wedding saga.
In 2018, CASE fielded 138 complaints about bridal service providers such as photographers, studios and co-ordinators, up from 102 in 2017. Prior to that, the shutting down of wedding studio Sophia Wedding Collection in 2015 led to CASE receiving 339 complaints from upset customers.
The bridal industry seems plagued with high operational costs and subsequently needing to charge exorbitant prices.
While the news might lead some critics to conclude some shady bridal companies are operating just to make a quick buck by charging exorbitant prices for their packages, and buyers should beware before depositing thousands of dollars, the better and more famous bridal boutiques have been in the business for decades.
These boutiques have built their reputations on hard work, persistence and honesty, going by what their customers say.
Since time immemorial, couples want the moon at the lowest possible price. But bridal companies face high start-up costs, including rental, ensuring a stock of exquisite gowns and enlisting photographers on retainers, so keeping business afloat can be challenging.
Are there no checks and balances authorities can put in place to protect unwitting couples? Why don’t authorities certify the better ones?
That sounds like but isn’t a viable solution. Beautiful Love Wedding itself was accredited by Case Trust. Fate was out of authorities’ hands, as the studio cited increasing business costs behind their closure.
But they certainly could have handled things better and forewarned their customers.
THE DISRUPTED WEDDING INDUSTRY
Long gone is the era when newlyweds accept the one-size-fits-all fixed price formula for their special day.
The advent of social media has disintermediated the wedding industry by enabling consumers to find individual vendors for gowns, photography, and so on through online word-of-mouth.
The Facebook page, SG Budget Brides, for instance, is a platform for almost 4,000 brides who share information, pictures, company reviews and more, allowing soon-to-be-married couples to discover more reputable bridal studios or avoid shady vendors with a poor track record.
Apps like Bride Story throw up a litany of choices on venues, wedding planners, photography and pretty much anything you need for your big day – with price lists, reviews and contact details available on demand.
These platforms have given couples more choice and customisation. Some even have a chatbot to help with troubleshooting.
Couples can now harness the power of the Internet to find options that suit their needs no matter what their price is – from buying second-hand wedding dresses off Carousell, or hiring wedding planners who count celebrities and socialites among their clientele.
As the wedding industry undergoes disruption amid heightened competition, bridal companies have to constantly remodel their regular packages to better match the desires of potential customers.
For instance, wedding boutique La Belle Couture has practically halved the price of its packages (which include gown and suit rentals, make-up, bouquets and photography) to strike a delicate balance business and customer preferences.
Average package prices at La Belle Couture now hover around the S$4,000 mark, a far cry from its usual range that can go up to S$8,000. The boutique’s high fixed costs include a big inventory with stock of up to 600 gowns and 300 suits at a time.
Furthermore, La Belle Couture has had to tweak its mix-and-match packages, letting customers buy credit that can be spent on wedding-related items such as corsages or hairstyling and make-up trials. Ironically, the studio used to have an expensive à la carte pricing menu with the sole purpose of encouraging clients to take a package.
The ubiquity of Internet reviews has also forced bridal businesses into being transparent with their pricing and services. As a result, customers are no longer willing to accept artificially differentiated packages that do not suit their needs.
In this time of restructuring for the industry, is it any wonder some shops are closing down?
EVOLVING WITH CURRENT TRENDS
Surviving on just gowns and photography may not be a winning formula anymore for bridal studios.
If the past slew of shutdowns teaches us anything, it’s that there is an urgent need to evolve with current trends.
1. ONE-STOP BRIDAL SHOPS
While some couples still prefer to have a convenient, all-in-one package, more prefer going directly to different vendors to have more control over their big day.
To capitalise on this preference, some studios have aimed to become a one-stop shop for all wedding services. These studios work with different vendors to deliver their customers’ varying requests.
Truly Enamoured has earned itself an enviable reputation of being an affordable one-stop bridal studio.
Though their strongest draw is the designer dresses they bring in fresh from the walkways of New York and Milan, from gorgeous Inbal Dror and Berta gowns to glamourous Cinobi cheongsams, they also offer packages with popular photographers like Android in Boots, renowned wedding make-up artiste firm The Makeup Room and suits for the groom by INVENTORY – starting at S$5,800.
2. MODULAR PACKAGES
A common misconception about bridal studios is that they tend to only offer rigid template packages, peppered with lots of hidden costs.
However, contrary to that belief, most bridal shops are able to customise the package accordingly to cater to an increasing number of brides who might have strong preferences for a particular photographer or florist, or prefer to DIY some parts of the wedding.
At most bridal studios, like The Louvre Bridal, clients can mix and match from a wide range of wedding services to customise their ideal package, with everything in black-and-white so that there are no unexpected costs later.
3. COLLABORATION FOR LONGEVITY
Couples who do opt for all-inclusive packages want them convenient and affordable. This has led to collaboration among service providers in the industry. For instance, hotels offer tie-ups with boutiques, photographers and even jewellers.
Established wedding companies have also branched out into other wedding services, leveraging their own reputation and expertise.
For instance, wedding planning company Watabe Singapore set up bridal label Ethereal in 2016 after wanting to provide more than just food and a venue (the company is the official venue operator for Chijmes).
Ethereal’s attractive packages bundle retail gowns, make-up and photography services, and the rental of either Chijmes Hall or the smaller Alcove at Caldwell House.
DON’T GIVE UP ON BRIDAL COMPANIES JUST YET
Like in any industry, there will be businesses that fail, while others survive and thrive. The bridal studio is no different.
The only difference is it’s a sector where customers tend to want to secure services in advance and have to provide upfront deposits, making the risk of closure long after they handed over cash significant.
But let’s be realistic. Part of the reason why such closures get so much traction is because the news invokes schadenfreude – where couples past derive pleasure in knowing their wedding went ahead without a hitch – and provides a cautionary tale for those planning their big day.
Since the business of weddings is such a personal once-in-a-lifetime journey, a handful of unsuccessful stories can mar the name of the entire industry.
Much more has been lost when businesses close – like when major banks and several financial institutions lost huge amounts during the global financial crisis, resulting in people losing their entire life savings – or when many more lost deposits when bike-sharing company oBike exited.
While some may have the time to put together their own DIY army for their special day, the reality is that most couples prefer the convenience and ease that bridal studios offer. And that’s not about to change.
Priyanka Elhence is a freelance writer based in Singapore, covering Parenting, Dining, Hospitality, Travel, Lifestyle, Property and Luxury beats.