I work at a bridal salon. As an Offbeat Bride myself, I'd like to say that I work in one of the cool, mom-and-pop boutiques that specifically cater to offbeat weddings, but no. I work in a bastion of Wedding Industrial Complex influence. But I do work with Offbeat Brides every day and I have picked up some traditional bridal salon tips to help you navigate them. Here's how you can survive (and maybe even thrive)…
Make an appointment
No, really, make an appointment. I can't even tell you how many times I had to send walk-in brides away on busy Saturdays. Some higher-end salons will flat-out not accept walk-ins while some bigger stores may be able to squeeze you in, but it's always a gamble. Most shops will not allow you to try on wedding dresses without a consultant, and when there are four bridal appointments and only two stylists on the floor, that could mean you are stuck window shopping until a consultant finishes up with a party. Save yourself the headache and book an appointment. Aim for a weekday if possible — busy weekends tend to be much more overwhelming, especially for brides dealing with anxiety disorders.
Be aware of the store's busy season
January to April is what is known in the wedding dress world as “Bridal Christmas.” It's a combination of brides who got engaged over the holidays and are just starting their wedding planning, brides and bridal parties feeling the crunch from upcoming summer weddings, and teenagers flocking to the store for dresses for prom. This is the busiest time of year for bridal salons both big and small. This is both good and bad for you as companies tend to run sales during this time to help drive traffic, and many new styles are released in late winter. But it can also mean long lines, limited-to-no availability for walk-ins, and a staff padded out with inexperienced seasonal help.
If you're getting married in the summer, the best time to shop is actually the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is typically the slowest time of the year so you are more likely to get a consultant who is only working with your party. There are also excellent sales on clearance merchandise at this time as the stores try to make room for the new items coming after the first of the year.
Know your budget
Know the store's price range
No one likes going into a store and realizing you can't afford anything they carry, so do a little research ahead of time. Each bridal salon will have its own average price for a wedding gown and going to a store with a starting price that is already out of your budget is setting yourself up to be disappointed. If you have a $400 budget, your time might be better spent checking out salons in the range of David's Bridal, as opposed to, say, Kleinfeld's which starts its dresses at $1500.
Think outside the bridal section
Don't be afraid to look at bridesmaid dresses, prom dresses, or even mother of the bride dresses if you are on a budget or looking for more color than what bridal sections have to offer. My favorite little-known section of the store for scoring serious drama on a budget: the flower girl section. Most flower girl dresses go up to a children's 18 or higher so if you are petite, flat-chested, or not afraid to alter the dress to accommodate your figure, you can sometimes find beautiful, miniature versions of wedding gowns at a fraction of the price.
Find out about payment options
Before you go saying yes to the dress, ask your consultant what is expected in terms of payment. Can you put down a deposit or does it need to be paid in full? Can you put the dress on layaway? Will a payment plan extend the lead time of the dress? Can you open a store credit card? Ask about the discounts available. Some stores give military or student discounts. Finally, ask about benefits of buying the dress such as savings on bridesmaids dresses or accessories.
Be aware of a consultant trying to pad their commission check by “adding on”
Adding on is a technique of turning a $500 dress into an $800 sale by adding shoes, veils, etc. This is not always an insidious plot. Sometimes there are deep discounts on the day of the dress purchase, but don't feel pressured into buying your entire outfit that day. The mark-ups on things like jewelry and shoes can be very high at bridal stores so you might get more for your money at a store that doesn't specialize in things you will only wear once.
To order or not to order?
If you have the time, a brand new dress fresh from the manufacturer can certainly be nice but don't forget to ask if there is a discount on the store sample and if the store will repair any damage the sample has sustained while in the store. Sometimes you do have to order if the store does not have your size or preferred color, in which case, always get a timeline of when the dress will come in and check it against the date of your wedding to make sure you have time for alterations. Be aware that a brand new dress can sometimes fit more snugly than a dress that has been hanging in the store for months or years. When in doubt, go a size up. Also, ask if the dress comes in petite sizes or extra length, as that can save brides on both sides of the height spectrum a lot of money when it comes to alterations.
Consider the preservation package if the store offers one
Of course, for brides dreaming of a trash the dress session, preservation is not really necessary. However, for brides who want to keep their dress, display it, resell it, or pass it on to a friend or family member, cleaning and preserving the dress is a good way of protecting the investment for longer than just the wedding day.
Dry cleaning and preserving a wedding dress after the wedding can really add up — think $150-300, which is a big unexpected expense right after a wedding. Some stores offer preservation packages which can include cleaning, steaming, minor repairs, treatment with an anti-yellowing agent, and a display box. Every shop's package is different and some don't offer it at all but they do tend to be a better deal than trying to find a place to have it done after the wedding.
Keep it under two hours
Many salons will cut you off after two hours of appointment time but if yours doesn't, know that you can always come back. Longer appointments are exhausting for everyone involved and by the end of it you might wind up buying something just to get it over with. I've seen brides after four-hour dress appointments and they are almost always miserable and wanting to go home. If you like your consultant, ask when they work next and have them book you a second appointment to further narrow your choices.
What advice do YOU have for delving into the deep end of traditional dress stores?