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Say Yes to the Little Guy

An independent bridal store owner on the death of J.Crew bridal.

Photo: Steve Russell/Getty Images

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Small boutique owners are ringing wedding bells right now. News that J.Crew killed bridal has thousands of bridal stores across the country hoping the pendulum is swinging back in our favor. Ever since mass retailers lured away our customers with ready-to-wear bridal, it’s been tough for the little guys.

Photo: Soliloquy Bridal Couture

When I opened my boutique, Soliloquy Bridal Couture, five years ago in a quaint Washington, DC suburb, I had done my research. At least I thought I had. I visited shops in the area to see if my ideas would work. I interviewed brides, found the perfect location in Herndon, Virginia, and was very selective in hiring staff. With every step, I never figured J.Crew and other big guys into the equation. Yet each year, one by one, they popped up like a city skyline and cast a shadow on my emerging new business.

We tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, that our customer would never leave us for the impersonal experience of retail giants. We chatted incessantly in our private Facebook groups about ways to fight back. We bemoaned the entry of BHLDN, Macy’s, and even Costco, who all appeared to be launching missiles directly at us. While many of us became casualties, those of us remaining are doing a little dance right now, holding up virtual candles in memory of the fallen.

Remember Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail? She was the owner of The Shop Around the Corner, a charming little bookstore nestled in the Upper West Side. The shop was passed down from her mother and she was carrying the torch for the next generation until the two-story Fox Books opened. She didn’t believe that her customers would leave a cozy, high-touch, customer-friendly atmosphere to become a rewards card-carrying faceless member at a large chain establishment. But they did. When her friends tried to console her, the shop owner responded, “People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they’re really saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all… has happened.”

Photo: Soliloquy Bridal Couture

We didn’t want the mass retailers to enter our space. But when something looks really good, everyone wants a bite. The bite they took left us with crumbs, and we are still trying to find creative ways to survive. We offer complimentary styling appointments, loyalty discount programs, private parties, online shopping, limo rides to and from our stores, late nights, early mornings. You name it, we’ve tried it.

What we really want is for the mass retailers to stop confusing brides. Maureen Chandler, owner of Blush Bridal Boutique in Haymarket, Virginia, says the big retailers jumping on the bridal bandwagon thinking it’s an easy dollar don’t understand that it’s not like shopping for a summer dress. Chandler adds, “It’s an emotional buy and the staff [of the mass retailers] don’t have the training to understand that emotional mindset. Brides and their bridal parties want a memorable experience. That’s not something the national chains understand or provide.” Keba Marshall, owner of Cherry Blossom Bridal in Washington, DC, agrees. “A bride’s wedding day is unlike any other experience and every step of the process should reflect that.”

Even if a bride doesn’t care about the experience, the small boutique owners spend a substantial amount of time educating brides on fit, quality, and the best silhouettes for their body type. We become invested in the process with them and even provide emotional support as they make and process decisions. Mia Antallics of Garnish Boutique in Baltimore, Maryland says, “If they don’t purchase from us, they take with them sufficient intelligence and confidence to find the right gown quickly at a ready-to-wear store.”

Ultimately, the big guys benefit from the knowledge brides gain during the personal consultations that small boutiques provide. We do the work; they get the business. But maybe the little guy’s share of the pie just got bigger.

Rest in peace, J.Crew Bridal.

Miriam Liggett is the owner of Soliloquy Bridal Couture, a luxury bridal boutique in the suburbs of Washington, DC.