There's good news and bad news for the UK bridalwear market. A decline in marriages continues to undermine the sector, but the number of first-time marriages - a crucial indicator since first-time brides are the heaviest spenders on bridalwear - has remained fairly constant.

According to a new report by market research firm Mintel, bridalwear in the UK is fighting a difficult trend - one of a steady decline in the number of marriages. This fundamental shift in lifestyles has been taking place for many decades and shows no signs of reversing.

The good news for the bridalwear industry is that the number of first-time marriages - a crucial indicator since first-time brides are the heaviest spenders on bridalwear - has remained fairly constant as a proportion of the total number of marriages, at just under 60 per cent.

Later marriages a positive trend
In the past decade, the average age of first-time brides has increased by about three years and now stands at 28.6 years. This has meant that many brides are more financially independent because they have had longer to establish their careers and work their way up to better-paid positions.

There has also been growth in the total number of women working during the past five years. The benefit of these trends to the bridalwear industry is that women are increasingly deciding to take control of the wedding budget and how it is spent and are willing to spend as much money as they feel is necessary, rather than being constricted by what they are given by their parents.

Decline in religious ceremonies
Although the decline in marriages has impacted on sales of bridalwear, the sharper decline in the number of religious ceremonies could be assumed to have had an even more significant impact on sales. However, this has proved not to be the case, since people who previously got married in a place of worship are increasingly opting for weddings in other locations, such as castles and stately homes, but still choosing to wear a traditional wedding dress.

Population trends not helping
Adverse population trends are not assisting demand for bridalwear either. With 28.6 being the average age of a bride in the UK, 25- to 34-year-olds are a key influence on demand. However, government data show that this sector of the population shrank by 10 per cent from 1998 to 2003, and is set to decline by a further 4.9 per cent between 2003 and 2007. Such a trend is almost certain to contribute to a continued decline in the number of marriages, particularly first-time marriages, which are key to the bridalwear market.

Traditional dresses dominate market
Mintel estimates that the market for bridalwear fell by one per cent in value and five per cent in volume terms between 1998 and 2002. The market can be segmented into traditional wedding dresses and other bridalwear, which includes other dresses which are sold as part of a bridalwear collection but which are not as ornate as a traditional dress.

Consumer research by the firm examined the kinds of outfit that women choose to marry in. It found that there had been a significant decline in the proportion who would choose a traditional wedding dress. Although it was by far the most popular option, this figure had dropped by nine per cent between 2001 and 2003. The decline was almost matched by an increase of those whoh claimed they would choose a day dress, an evening dress, a ballgown or a trouser suit.

Fragmented supply structure
The supply structure for the bridalwear market is very fragmented, with a large number of companies competing for a slice of sales. Most mass-market bridalwear is now sourced from the Far East, with only a handful of designer bridalwear suppliers still manufacturing in the UK. The largest supplier to the UK market is The Design Portfolio, which markets its own range as well as wholesaling to a large number of smaller suppliers. The other main players in the market are Sincerity, Alfred Angelo and Mori Lee.

Ad spending on the rise
The amount spent on advertising bridalwear jumped by 158 per cent between 1998 and 2002. This reflects the increasingly cutthroat nature of the market, with suppliers having to 'shout' louder in order to create awareness of their brand names and collections. With consumer spending on bridalwear having contracted during this period, the advertising-to-sales ratio has increased from 2.6 per cent in 1998 to 6.8 per cent in 2002.

However, the vast majority of bridal shops are independently owned, single-site businesses and there are really only two retail operators of note. These are Amero Ltd, which operates the Pronuptia brand on a licence basis, and Bellbourne House, which runs the Berkertex Bride, Castigliano Collection and Caroline Castigliano outlets, as well as a number of in-store concessions.

Expert Analysis

Bridalwear Market Assessment 2002

The bridalwear industry is highly fragmented, with over 1,000 retail outlets and around 72 UK companies designing and manufacturing gowns, bridesmaids' dresses and bridal accessories. Almost without exception, these are small, privately-owned companies that do not publish their annual returns.

Consequently, there is very little financial information available to the industry, and little industry research. Designers and retailers use their own experience to make their own market forecasts, which are always only short term — 1 to 2 years ahead. Find out more here.

 

Attempts by new retailers to penetrate the market have proved largely unsuccessful, the most notable being Virgin Bride, which closed its London store in 2003 and now operates just one outlet in Manchester.

Less adults wishing to marry
Consumer research commissioned by Mintel found that the proportion of adults who would like to marry or who have plans to marry fell three per cent between 2001 and 2003. Such a trend suggests that the pattern of declining marriages is set to continue for some time to come.
Fashion chains to gain ground

The same research also investigated where women would go to buy their bridalwear. It found that, while the most popular choice was (by a relatively small margin) a specialist bridal outlet, the proportion agreeing that they would do so had declined by three per cent between 2001 and 2003.

In contrast, the proportion saying that they would go to a clothing or fashion store had increased by the same amount, suggesting that a growing number of brides-to-be are coming to regard mainstream fashion stores as a genuine alternative to specialist outlets.

No fairytale ending
The prospects for the bridalwear industry will continue to be heavily influenced by the number of women getting married, the proportion of those that are first-time brides and the type of ceremony that is held. There is currently no indication that the long-term trend of decline in the number of marriages will be halted or reversed, and therefore all signs point to the bridalwear 'cake' continuing to shrink in the next five years.