Smaller cakes, shorter dresses, bigger diamonds: The pandemic is shaking up the $73 billion wedding industry

Bridesmaids Janelle Williams, left, and Connie Luong, right, watch bride Evelyn Krig try on a wedding dress at Krig’s home in San Jose, Calif., this month. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Marlena Sloss.

When the pandemic upended their wedding plans in June, Kristine Vejar and Adrienne Rodriguez moved everything online: dress shopping, cake-cutting, even the vows.

“We decided, what is there to lose? Let’s get married and we can have a big party next year,” said Vejar, 43, who co-owns a yarn shop and natural dye studio in Oakland with Rodriguez. The shift not only allowed them to share their special day with 150 friends and family, but it also “means we’re not $10,000 in debt right now.”

While the pandemic has led to a flurry of engagements, it also has put in limbo much of the wedding industry – a $73 billion market, according to data research firm IBISWorld. Most couples – about 80 percent of them – postponed or canceled their ceremonies after the U.S. outbreak began nearly a year ago, said David Wood, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants. Those who haven’t are scaling back considerably, with backyard vows and online ceremonies to avoid large gatherings, Wood said.

As a result, couples are redirecting their wedding dollars – splurging on engagement rings, individually packed charcuterie plates and macarons, and moving away from multicourse dinners, traditional venues and tiered cakes. In states such as Colorado, where pandemic prohibitions include dance floors, couples are shunning live bands and DJs and turning to bingo and trivia games to keep guests entertained.

In 2019, the average wedding cost nearly $25,000, with most going toward the reception, according to the Wedding Report, a market research firm. But with nuptials increasingly taking place outdoors or online, the average couple now spend significantly less, forcing retailers and vendors to adapt. Hotels are offering elopement packages, bridal gown designers are creating simpler, shorter dresses, and bakers are churning out miniature cakes. And a growing contingent of videographers and wedding planners will produce and host Zoom nuptials, often with a price tag in the thousands.

In Baltimore, photographer Dave McIntosh recently added a live-streaming service, starting at $850, to his lineup of photo and video packages. He took a leap of faith, he says, early in the pandemic when he invested $10,000 on high-speed routers, modems and wireless radios to facilitate online weddings.

It has been a runaway success: McIntosh facilitates as many as 10 Zoom and YouTube weddings – and a growing number of funerals – each month. Overall bookings are up 50 percent from a year ago.

“Almost every wedding I had booked last year was postponed,” he said. “That’s when I realized, OK, times are changing. I need to adapt, too.”

It’s not just the wedding that’s getting a makeover.

Bridal gown shopping has become an event unto itself, often accompanied by bridesmaids and champagne, as popularized by television shows such as “Say Yes to the Dress.”

It’s moving online, too.

Azazie, an online bridal boutique based in Silicon Valley, has doubled down on virtual showrooms where brides and their friends can select, share and vote for their favorite dresses. The company also expanded its at-home try-on program, which allows brides to select as many as three gowns at a time.

The company also created a line of simpler, shorter wedding dresses, starting at $190, and lowered prices overall, with bridesmaid dresses starting near $70. Its line of masks, which come in satin, velvet, lace and beaded varieties, sells for as little as $2 apiece.

“There is definitely more demand for more low-key, simple bridal gowns for virtual weddings and elopements,” Chief Marketing Officer Ranu Coleman said, adding that sales rose 30% in January from a year earlier. “So many wedding plans were uncertain that we’ve had to make a lot of shifts and adjustments.”

Evelyn Krig of San Jose had hoped to show up to bridal gown appointments with a full entourage – mother, aunts, friends – and bottles of champagne. “But with the pandemic, that’s kind of been stolen from me,” she said.

Now the 27-year-old teacher is doing her best to re-create the experience at home: She ordered a selection of wedding gowns and dusty blue bridesmaid dresses and invited her friends over. They sipped champagne from Costco while trying on their gowns.

“It wasn’t what I envisioned, but I tried to salvage it the best way I can,” said Krig, who married her partner, Benjamin, in 2018, shortly after graduating from college, but waited to save up for a more lavish ceremony and reception.

She’s prepared to make other adjustments as her June wedding draws closer, including slashing her guest list and moving the cathedral ceremony outdoors. The steak and chicken buffet she’d planned will likely turn into a plated dinner.

“It’s been so difficult because you never know if things are going to take a turn for the worse,” she said.

The couple plan to spend more on the honeymoon by taking two – one in Mexico, the other in Italy – later this year, Krig said.

Others electing to downsize the event are boosting spending in other areas, such as flowers and jewelry.

At diamond giant De Beers, fourth-quarter sales of engagement rings rose 12% from a year earlier, with much of that growth coming from larger stones, according to Stephen Lussier, the company’s executive vice president of consumer markets.

Other jewelers are reporting similar trends, including an uptick in diamond-encrusted wedding bands for men.

“Bridal revenue has literally spiked” during the pandemic, said Amish Shah, president of ALTR, a New York-based company that specializes in lab-grown diamonds. “Those who could afford it are getting even larger diamonds.”

The typical engagement ring, he said, now comes with a 2.5-carat diamond (price tag: $6,000 to $9,000), compared with the 1-carat stones seen pre-pandemic. Signet Jewelers, the parent company of Kay, Zales and Peoples, also reports seeing higher demand for larger and more novel cuts of diamonds, including pear- and heart-shaped stones for both men and women, according to President Jamie Singleton.

“The ring is more important than ever,” she said. “As couples have smaller weddings or postpone them, they’re putting a little more of their budget in rings.”

Couples also are choosing larger and more elaborate floral arrangements, says Pamela Klein, a florist in the Chicago suburbs.

“Couples are saying, ‘Instead of 200 guests, we’re just going to have 20, so let’s go all out on the flowers,’ ” she said. “We’re doing more specialty arrangements and hanging installations than ever before. They’re costly and take a lot of labor hours, but more couples are saying, ‘Let’s build a boardwalk from grandma and grandpa’s cottage all the way out to the lake because we can.’ ”

Katie and Ryan Bentley had planned to hold their wedding at a Minneapolis theater with 130 guests when the pandemic changed their minds. They chose instead to get married at her parents’ lakefront house with just 15 people.

They served tacos and chicken wings and, in lieu of wedding cake, single-serve brownies, cheesecakes and macarons. The reception was set up in five seating areas, so each group of guests – the bride’s family, the groom’s family, bridesmaids and others – could maintain a proper distance. Everyone wore masks.

But there were unexpected complications, too. The formalwear shop where the groom had rented his tuxedo shuttered suddenly two days before the wedding, after employees were exposed to the coronavirus, setting off a frantic search for a new one.

In the end, the couple saved thousands on the venue and catering, and splurged instead on a videographer, event designer and day-of coordinator.

“Everything was drastically different than what we’d planned,” said Katie, 35, who works in the insurance industry. “We didn’t meet with the caterer. We didn’t try any of the food. Everything was about ensuring that our guests were safe.”

In Washington D.C., Marina Barakatt and Shaagnik Mukherji rescheduled their lavish Hindu ceremony for 200 guests. They exchanged vows at a local park – him in a purple suit, her in a flowered jumpsuit – and sprang for a photo shoot with their dog, Daisy. Afterward, they made the seven-hour drive to Lake George, N.Y., for a quiet getaway.

Barakatt, 33, who works in international development, said the plan is to have the larger ceremony on their first anniversary in October. But there is at least one wild card: The performing arts venue where they’d put down a deposit for their reception shut down in the fall.

“We’re just waiting to see whether or not they’ll still be in business,” she said.

When traditional wedding bookings dried up at the beginning of the pandemic, Caroline Creidenberg took a chance on planning Zoom weddings instead.

It paid off. Her company, Wedfuly, hosted 500 online weddings from March through December, with as many as 30 bookings on some weekends.

“It’s a much-needed shift for the industry, and it took a pandemic for things to finally change,” she said. “We saw our clients start freaking out in March and thought, OK, let’s do Zoom as a crutch to get through the pandemic. But pretty quickly the lightbulb went off in my head: This isn’t just something that’s going to get us through, but it’s going to create radical change in the industry.”

She purchased a few dozen tripods, microphones and ring lights, and came up with a template for interactive online weddings. There are group dances (often to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”), virtual toasts and breakout rooms separated by “table,” so guests can interact as they would in person. Packages start at $1,200, with add-ons such as photo guest books ($100) and slide shows ($200).

“The industry as a whole has turned into a monster, where you need to have this party and a bridal shower and you need to care about your napkin folds,” said Creidenberg, who is based in Denver. “The beauty of virtual weddings is that they strip away all of that extra stuff.”

Alyson and Jason Beyer had planned a 200-person wedding at a Tallahassee venue, complete with a lavish Southern dinner. But the pandemic had other plans.

Weeks before their April nuptials, the couple uninvited just about everyone from their celebration. They still got married, but in front of a dozen guests in a friend’s backyard. Everybody else followed along on Facebook Live. They served champagne in disposable cups, along with mini pastries that Alyson picked up from the local Publix supermarket. In all, they saved more than $20,000 by downsizing.

“Everything was abbreviated,” said Alyson, 35, a business analyst at Florida State University. “Was it what I planned? Absolutely not. But it ended up being intimate and special.”



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