Walking Down a Larger Aisle

DALLAS — Neiman Marcus has turned up the volume on the Wedding March.<br><br>In a bid to woo more brides and charm them into becoming lifelong Neiman’s customers, the retailer is opening three new in-store bridal shops for a total of seven...

DALLAS — Neiman Marcus has turned up the volume on the Wedding March.

This story first appeared in the July 1, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In a bid to woo more brides and charm them into becoming lifelong Neiman’s customers, the retailer is opening three new in-store bridal shops for a total of seven and overhauling its antiquated gift registry system. The company also this month unveiled a slick new wedding salon at its downtown flagship to replace an aging shop.

“The bridal salon is the ultimate customer service, and it helps complete the relationship from birth through the stages in life,” said Ginny Hershey, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of couture. “A bride spends three times the amount of a normal new account in the first year and continues to spend.”

The push is part of Neiman’s ongoing campaign to lure younger customers into its luxury fold. A bride who shops for a gown at Neiman’s is a potential customer for nearly every other department, especially mother-of-the bride dresses, bridal trousseau, gift registry, men’s, home and eventually children’s, executives pointed out.

“We’re always looking for new customers,” Hershey said. “For a bride or debutante, this is her first taste of couture with a fitter, and it starts her appreciation of it, and hopefully it continues on. Once she feels comfortable and starts to appreciate the service, then she’ll always want that.”

The gown will likely cost more than it did before Neiman’s started focusing on brides two years ago, during which time the average dress has risen to $4,000, up from $2,500. While the opening price point for gowns is about $2,500, there are some that hit $20,000 or more. That alone is helping Neiman’s post double-digit gains in bridal sales.

“We obviously want to represent the best selection out there,” Hershey noted. “We’re catering to the fine apparel customer who understands construction and appreciates details like Lesage beading.”

The higher prices have not met resistance. When a bride falls in love with a dress that’s beyond her budget, she starts thinking about giving up the open bar in favor of beer and wine only, observed Dana Mullins, bridal buyer.

Top labels for traditional pouf gowns are Vera Wang, Reem Acra and Amsale. But Neiman’s is increasing its business for softer, alternative styles with Monique Lhuillier, Badgley Mischka and Cocoe Voci.

The salon at the downtown flagship was moved from the fifth floor, which is being converted to offices for Neiman Marcus Group, to the second floor across from the European designer (Neiman’s refers to this area as its couture department) and fur collections. The hope is that brides will visit the bridal salon and then mosey across to shop couture with their moms.

In what was storage space next to the escalators, Neiman’s has crafted a light, airy salon composed of bleached pear wood walls, green glass partitions and a Texas limestone tile floor. It’s planned to do $2 million its first year in 3,000 square feet of selling space, which is about the same size as the former shop upstairs.

Besides its elegant new look, the biggest change at the redone salon is that a selection of 60 to 90 gowns hangs in the main room so women can flip through and make choices rather than have dresses presented to them one-by-one, as they were in the old boutique.

Each of the four dressing rooms is a spacious 250 square feet to give the bride room to twirl and consult with her mother, the sales associate and on-staff wedding consultant. A long aisle next to the fitting rooms enables brides to walk toward a mirror to get the full visual effect.

Display vitrines on the wall outside the salon will display china and silver, and for big social weddings, the bride’s choices will be shown in the windows when she comes for a fitting. Additional vitrines in the fitting rooms display such accessories as jeweled picture frames by Jay Strongwater.

The boutique will serve as a prototype for future salons, Hershey said.

The seventh in-store bridal boutique will open in August in Scottsdale, Ariz. It will be similar to the Dallas shop but incorporates more glass to appear almost like a glass house.

Last fall, Neiman’s opened bridal salons at stores in Short Hills, N.J., and San Diego. The chain has long had bridal businesses in four stores: St. Louis, Town & Country Village Shopping Center in Houston, Oak Brook Shopping Center in Chicago and the downtown flagship. Executives are considering adding a salon to the San Francisco store.

The boutiques stock a sizable selection of gowns from North American designers — the flagship has a total of 250 samples. Stores have also geared up with appropriate shoes and bags to work with the dresses, and the Galleria dress department has picked up styles suitable for bridesmaids from its regular vendors, such as Laundry.

“It’s a total store effort, down to the mints that they hand out as gifts,” Hershey noted.

The new bridal gift registry system is scheduled to go online in January, replacing an outdated and sometimes dysfunctional system that is linked with weddingchannel.com. On Monday and Tuesday, for instance, it was impossible to access Neiman’s bridal registry online.

“We are launching a Web-based bridal registry system so that brides can register from home or in the store and can view or update it from home or the store,” explained Al Oliver, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for home and epicure. “It will make it easier and faster for everyone.”

Neiman’s plans to start testing its new registry system with its bridal consultants and store associates this summer to work out the bugs. It’s negotiating with weddingchannel.com to determine what that Web site’s role will be.”