Insider bridal salon tips from a stealth Offbeat Bride working in the field

February 27 | Guest post by Clairebear
Insider bridal salon tips from a stealth Offbeat Bride working in the field
Dress by Zeita Studios

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.

Insider bridal salon tips from a stealth Offbeat Bride working in the field
Dress by Chantal Mallett Bridal Couture

Know your budget

Talk to your partner as well as anyone else who is paying for the wedding and decide what you can really afford. Remember to think beyond the cost of the dress itself to alterations, accessories, undergarments, veils, and preservation. Tell your consultant what your budget is and — this is the hard part — do not get talked into trying anything on that is drastically out of that budget. Just don't do it. Not even "just for fun." There is always a chance that you could fall in love with that expensive dress and then be disappointed by the dresses in your price range.

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.

Insider bridal salon tips from a stealth Offbeat Bride working in the field
Dress by Zeita Studios

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.

Insider bridal salon tips from a stealth Offbeat Bride working in the field
Dress by Wedding Dress Fantasy

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?

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    • Eight months out from the wedding is a nice comfortable timeline for my store, where our longest lead time is 5 months on a dress and we recommend 6 weeks for alterations, but some shops have gowns that take longer to come in. That doesn't mean we can't find you a dress if you come in in September, but it does mean you will might have to purchase the floor model or limit your search to gowns that come in 4 weeks.

    • Giving yourself more time does give you the flexibility of waiting for a sale, so go ahead and sign up for a few mailing lists to keep an eye out for coupons and savings.

  1. I did this job for a few years myself, and I would add this one crucial piece of advice. Bring no one with you, or, bring 1-2 people, max. Having 6 or 8 people giving their many varying opinions on each dress can be frustrating & confusing for you, and, we've all seen those 'Say Yes To The Dress' episodes, where a snippy aunt, bridesmaid or parent, makes a bride-to-be miserable. Trust your own judgement, or that of 1 or 2 'very' close people. If you feel your future grandmother-in-law, your 6 teen-aged cousins etc, will be offended by being left out, then select your dress first, and have them come to your first fitting and let them offer their opinions on potential veils, head-pieces, shoes, etc. Even if you buy nothing else from the store, they'll have still gotten a peek before most of your other guests. And since you already have your dress, their only reaction to it can possibly be that they love it. 🙂

    The other thing is, many salons would love to make the experience special for everyone – so, when everyone brings groups of 6 or 10 people, the noise level goes up, the clerks have to watch out for a lot more people pawing over what are sometimes very expensive and delicate creations, and sometimes there just aren't enough chairs. So, please – come alone, or with just 1 or 2 people.

    3 agree
    • This is something I've struggled with…
      There's only 1 wedding I've been in that we went bridal shopping with the bride "en masse" : 4 bridesmaids, the stepmother of the bride and of course the bride herself for a total of 6 people. As you suggested, there were a few too many opinions that day. To complicate matters, it wasn't just bride gowns we were looking at — we *had* to finalize the bridesmaids' dresses as well. We managed to find conflict in areas I hadn't thought possible. So that was the bad part.
      The good part, however, is that it was the first time all of us had hung out together since our college graduation. We spent the whole day together, went to a fancy lunch and dinner. Did it up. It wound up being the only thing we did together because 2 of us could only come out 1 time before the wedding and the bride didn't have a "hen night" right before the wedding.
      So.. was it a bad idea? I don't know. It was certainly hard. But my over-whelming memories are good. And we got a lot of mileage out of the stories from that day. 🙂

      2 agree
    • I would typically suggest a small group of 1-3 extra people, any more than that and there are too many voices in the bride's ear. However, I find brides shopping alone often really need that extra validation or help from another person being there, even if it is just to help them get into the dress if the stylist isn't doing that for them.

      1 agrees
    • Interestingly, when i was looking at local boutiques I found most of them had a cap on the number of people you can bring for a bridal fitting. Even the ones that also do bridesmaid dresses usually maxed out at two people. If you've only got one fitting room, I guess the time/money ratio for large groups to all try on dresses just isn't worthwhile when you could get through multiple bridal appointments in the same period.

      1 agrees
  2. I had a pretty solid shopping experience at David's Bridal at Christmastime.

    1) I went alone. Totally alone. I had little idea what I wanted and didn't want to deal with anyone else till I had ideas. Later, my mom and sister and my fiancé' mom and SIL (who I consider a friend) came on "buying" day.
    2) I showed my consultant my Pinterest boards and talked about my venue.
    3) I made it very clear that I had a very low budget and wasn't buying that day because I would need my mom with me.
    4) my dress was $20 cheaper on David's Bridal.com. I put my dress in my shopping cart. They sent me a 10% off coupon. The store honored the discount AND the lower price.

    I tried to be as polite and honest as I could be…and found a wonderful dress (the first my consultant pulled and had me try on!) that was very much in my budget.

    1 agrees
  3. My final tip would be if you can't afford the dress you really love, see if your store is hiring! I have had several coworkers who came on as temp workers during our busy season (spring) when they always need people, even people who can only work one day a week. Its a great way to connect with other brides, make extra cash for the wedding, and the employee discount can bring more dresses down to your budget. You can either leave after the busy season or stay on if you find you like it.

    2 agree

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