At the newest David's Bridal store, wedged in a Los Angeles strip mall with an auto parts merchant and a Subway sandwich shop, customers won't find the chain's usual budget-conscious dresses, fluorescent lighting and wall-to-wall carpeting.
Instead, there's glossy tile flooring. Chandeliers. Curated displays of shoes, glittering jewelry and pearl-encrusted clutches. Artfully draped curtains lead into a bright area lined with mirrored dressing rooms and plush chairs, evoking the boutique salons on Robertson Boulevard or Melrose Place. Women try on exclusive looks from couture designers Zac Posen and Vera Wang, some costing nearly $2,000.
About a year after being bought by private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice for $1.05 billion, 65-year-old David's Bridal is trying to establish itself as a more upscale player.
The Conshohocken, Pa., company chose to launch the prototype for future stores during the peak season in the industry: January through March, known as Bridal Christmas because of the influx of customers who get engaged over the holidays.
"The retail landscape has changed," Chief Marketing Officer Brian Beitler said. "Every consumer, at almost every price tier, wants to be able to get something that's affordable and to be able to go as high as they can from a fashion perspective."
Most David's Bridal units are boxy, often as large as 18,000 square feet. And the cramped fitting rooms and the shopping floor are "one and the same place," Beitler said.
The new location, at La Cienega and West Pico boulevards in the Carthay area, sits on 10,000 square feet in what used to be a Mood Fabrics store. It's designed to feel more intimate than its sister stores, with a separate alcove for women trying on dresses.
The company hopes that the amenities will encourage higher spending than is average at other stores in the chain, where gowns can be found for less than $100. The new store's proximity to wealthier neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills might help; David's Bridal's other locations in the area are in Torrance, Burbank and Northridge.
The only other store with what Beitler calls an "elevated experience" is in London, where the retailer expanded in October. Elements of the design are also present in a store in East Brunswick, N.J.
Though the timeline is "not entirely defined," Beitler said future David's Bridal stores will follow the Los Angeles model, with the more than 300 existing stores eventually being updated to the more upscale look.
The Southland is already a hotbed of bridal boutiques, many of which will now directly compete with the more upmarket David's Bridal.
This summer, about five minutes away in Beverly Hills, Anthropologie opened a BHLDN salon, its first on the West Coast. Wedding dresses there range in price from $600 to less than $3,000. A few minutes north, Glamour Closet stocks dresses marked up to 75% off their original couture prices.
In the age of Pinterest, when prospective brides are inundated with images of the perfect wedding, analysts believe that women aren't as interested in elaborate, expensive dresses.
The average American bride shells out $1,211 on her wedding dress, according a report last year from XO Group Inc., which owns TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com.
That's less than what's spent individually on other big-ticket wedding items such as the engagement ring, the ceremony site, the reception venue, the videographer, the florist, the reception band, the event planner and the photographer, according to the survey.
"The bride and her party seem to be focusing more on the event — the entertainment, the food, the venue," said Marshal Cohen, an analyst with research firm the NPD Group. "The dress, which used to be such a focal point, becomes an accessory to the wedding. It doesn't mean that the dress isn't important, it's just going to be less expensive."
David's Bridal began trying to expand its target audience three years ago, when it first paired with high-end designer Vera Wang to launch her exclusive White by Vera Wang Collection for the company. At that point, the company said it had no standing in the market for more expensive wedding gowns.
These days, David's Bridal says it has 12% of the market for bridal dresses priced between $1,000 and $2,000. On Feb. 6, the chain will start selling looks from its newest celebrity partnership with designer Zac Posen.
David's Bridal, which likes to say that it dresses more than 1 in 3 brides, is now looking for growth opportunities in higher-income areas. Some 1.7 million brides register with David's Bridal each year hoping to receive information on dresses. Using that data, the company can discern regions with heavy clusters of brides.
Demand for wedding gowns has increased in the last four years, according to Beitler. And David's Bridal said it makes more of the dresses than anyone else in the business, most of them in Asia.
The company also said it does a fair amount of business online — roughly 10% of its sales, on par with the norm for the rest of the retail market.
Cohen calls the David's Bridal strategy a "natural progression."
"They can't grow downwards by selling $300 dresses," he said. "As the economy recovers, they're going to try to get that customer in the middle — someone who's not willing to spend the big bucks, just someone willing to spend a little more."
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