I had some concern putting together this issue’s feature, Know Your Competition, which provides an in-depth look at five of the main online sites capturing attention in the bridal retail world today. Specially, I didn’t want the article to come across like an endorsement of these sites, which it definitely is not. At the same time, I wanted to be honest about the things I thought they were doing well.

After all, thoroughly understanding your online competition’s offerings, and accompanying strengths and weaknesses, is crucial. Not only does it give you the necessary insight to properly emphasize and compare your benefits, but the reality is brides are curious about these sites – and if you want to win their business you must thoroughly understand what you’re up against and how, exactly, to respond.

The specifics of what each site offers can be found beginning on pg. 54. In the meantime, here are four things that struck me while looking through them.

Introductions are awkward. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to call someone you’ve never met, seen or interacted with, but in my opinion “Babe” – especially via an initial text or e-mail – isn’t it. It comes across awkwardly, like they’re trying to make a connection and be all buddy-buddy but something crucial – that personal touch and unspoken body language – is missing. This is a feeling I had repeatedly. . . it’s obvious these sites are trying to establish a connection with brides, and some do a better job of it than others, but there’s only so much “warm and fuzzy” that can come across through a computer screen or phone. 

A surprising amount of information is missing. In general, these sites do a good job of providing relevant details. However, several times I ran into questions that weren’t addressed and I had to track the answers down. Sometimes this happened afterhours when I couldn’t get an immediate response (Contrary to what I’d assumed most observe regular business hours and don’t answer inquiries 24-7). Other times, it occurred during the workday, but I still had to wait for a reply to my e-mail, instant message or text. Most sites responded promptly during the day but one kept me waiting for nearly a half-hour!

The cost-saving factor isn’t as big as I thought. Yes, you can save some money on most of them, but it wasn’t nearly as much as I’d assumed. Many of the dress prices shown do not include additional fees you must factor in – for at-home try-ons, shipping, rush, extended sizing, alterations, etc. Also, some of these sites sell (much!) higher-priced gowns than I was expecting to see and many (not all!) of their time frames are close to an independent salon’s.

Salons focus on comforting…online sites on warning. This might’ve been my biggest takeaway: So much of the experience a bride receives at an independent salon is about reassuring and pampering – you’re the expert, you’ll handle X, Y and Z so the bride can sit back, relax and enjoy preparing for her Big Day. But online, time and time again, I was warned about loads of stuff I had to do  – learn how to measure my own body; order a fabric swatch to be certain that color I liked online really looks like that in person; make certain I planned my time frame carefully enough to allow for all these back-and-forth orders/try-ons/returns; find an expert seamstress; make certain any dresses I didn’t want were mailed back in time and definitely not damaged in order to get my refund. The end result was a bit disconcerting. . . and definitely not how I’d personally like to feel leading up to my Big Day.