As the novel coronavirus began rushing across the U.S. landscape in March, bridal shops from coast to coast were quickly forced to adapt to an unprecedented public health crisis. Five retailers – one from each of the nation’s five geographic regions – recount the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, the current environment in their boutiques and the silver linings that emerged from these challenging times.


    Uptown Bride
    Albuquerque, N.M.

The impact of COVID-19: Just after celebrating its second birthday in February, Uptown Bride was on track to match its March tally from 2019, the upstart store’s best month last year. Then, coronavirus hit and surging sales figures slowed. Per state mandate, the store closed on March 22. After working to reschedule appointments, owners Stacy Blackwell and Karen Chavez began researching what it would take to reopen. “We were determined to do all we could to be ready as soon as the state allowed us to reopen,” Blackwell says.

The long march back: Uptown Bride reopened on May 16 with mandatory face coverings, a strict sanitation routine and temperature checks for staff. It also cut back to two appointments every 90 minutes and limited each bride to two guests, though brides who wanted to bring up to four guests could rent a private dressing area. Chavez found customers largely willing to roll with changes, yet uneasy about the future. “Some brides have lost deposits due the closure of venues that they will not be able to recover,” Chavez says. “This has put them into a position to balance the budget and spend less on the dress of their dreams.”

The post-COVID world: Though Uptown Bride is slowly regaining its footing, Blackwell says “almost everything requires more physical and mental effort.” Appointments, typically up-close-and-personal affairs, have become more guarded while face coverings filter out visible emotions. “Building a relationship with the customer is more difficult now,” Blackwell says, adding that it’s also tough to develop sales expectations. “It’s a whole new world [and] that uncertainty is hard to grasp.”

Silver linings: Virtual appointments, which the store had not considered pre-pandemic, were a definite surprise. Uptown staff used 30-minute Zoom meetings to collect information and answer questions, while also dressing mannequins in styles that brides liked. “Our stylists are having fun with [virtual appointments] and so are the brides,” Blackwell says. “That’s an idea we’ll keep.”

A lesson learned: Chavez and Blackwell consider themselves a more resilient, stronger team, and a business tandem much more open to rethinking the status quo. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We have to stay the course and focus on innovation and things that we can change, not the things we cannot,” Chavez says.


    Country Bridals and Formal Wear
    Jaffrey, N.H.

The impact of COVID-19: On March 21, New Hampshire officials forced non-essential businesses to close. “It’s tough to be told you’re not essential,” owner Cathy Furze admits. She turned off the lights, locked the door and forwarded all incoming calls to her cell phone. Over the next seven weeks, Furze rebooked appointments, troubleshooted customer issues, shipped dresses and occasionally ventured into the store to handle a curbside pickup, though her successful prom business evaporated. “April and May were a big hit,” Furze says.

The long march back: Country Bridals reopened its 2,000-square-foot storefront on May 11 with assorted new protocols, including mandatory face coverings and hand sanitation. After every appointment, any tried-on dresses were placed in a nearby room and either left hanging for 24 hours or sprayed with a Clorox fabric sanitizer while fitting rooms were completely sanitized before another customer could enter. The store also placed a limit of two guests for every bridal appointment and one guest for a fitting. “Overall, brides have been rather compliant,” Furze says.

The post-COVID world: On a typical Saturday, Country Bridals would have 15 appointments. Now, the store tops out at eight appointments. “And that’s extending our day by two hours,” adds Furze, who had brought back four of her seven staff members by early June. On the plus side, Furze has encountered more “serious” brides, especially those marrying in 2021. “They’re shopping early because they’ve seen the impact this pandemic has had on the 2020 brides,” she says.

Silver linings: The COVID-19 situation forced Country Bridals to leverage technology in new ways. The 18-year-old store instituted an online payment system and allowed brides to virtually “pre-shop” every in-store dress online and mark 6-8 favorites. “Brides walk into the fitting room now and we’ve got eight dresses waiting for them,” Furze says. “This gets us on the path to picking out a winner much faster.”

A lesson learned: Though Furze was admittedly content with the “old way of doing things,” she says the pandemic’s upheaval paired with the inventiveness of younger staff forced her to “let go of the reins a bit.” Two granddaughters who work in the store, for instance, produced an instructional TikTok video on buttoning and unbuttoning a bridal gown. “My eyes have been opened to different ideas and that’s been a positive,” Furze says.


   Wendy’s Bridal
   Dublin, Ohio

The impact of COVID-19: A 7,000-square-foot store outside Columbus, Ohio, Wendy’s Bridal serves about 3,000 brides each year. “That’s a hard ship to bring to a halt,” confesses Lilly Stalnaker, who has been general manager of the 37-year-old boutique since 1994. On March 24, the store locked its front door, instituted curbside pickup and focused on maintaining its decades-long streak of not missing a wedding. “We wanted to keep that streak intact and we did,” Stalnaker beams.

The long march back: Wendy’s had a soft opening the week of May 4 before resuming quasi-normal operations on May 12 with various new procedures in place for brides, including mandatory face coverings, temperature scanning and hand sanitizing. The store also limited party sizes, holding especially firm during weekend appointments, and placed numbers on its sidewalk for parties to wait before entering the store. “We met some resistance, but most were appreciative of our precautions,” Stalnaker says, adding that the changes ultimately helped Wendy’s organize its hefty traffic and ensure a pleasant experience for all.

The post-COVID world: With Wendy’s weekend appointment capacity roughly half of its pre-pandemic level, stylists are more cognizant than ever about putting their best foot forward to optimize the appointment. The store has actively promoted its selection of off-the-rack dresses, including building incentives around off-the-rack purchases, and trumpeted its experienced in-house alterations team. “We want to walk alongside our brides and let them know we can see this through for them,” Stalnaker says. As a result, some of Wendy’s most seasoned stylists boast closing rates approaching 75 percent.

Silver linings: While Wendy’s began using BridalLive last year, the store had not fully unlocked the retail software’s potential. The pandemic forced Wendy’s to implement various features present in BridalLive, including communication tools that allowed the shop to contact some 130 bridal appointments via text. “This was a life saver because it allowed us to more efficiently and effectively communicate with customers at the exact time we needed to be more efficient and effective,” Stalnaker says.

A lesson learned: While Wendy’s boasts a strong 37-year track record with brides, Stalnaker says COVID-19 compelled an even deeper commitment to servicing brides and trusting staff. “We always want to get better at what we do and feel we’ve actually added value during this,” she says.


   The One Bridal Salon
   Charlottesville, Va.

The impact of COVID-19: In late February, local media approached Peggie Donowitz and inquired about supply chain challenges at her two-year-old bridal boutique. Donowitz confesses she had no idea how greatly things would shift within two weeks. On March 10, she voluntarily closed her store. A former nurse who is also married to an infectious disease doctor, Donowitz admittedly wrestled with the idea of being in a closed fitting room and hands on with brides amid a threatening virus. She cancelled all existing appointments and found most brides relieved. “No one was particularly upset,” she says.

The long march back: The One sat dark for two months. After state officials gave the green light for businesses to resume operations, Donowitz eased back in with only a handful of appointments on May 23 and May 30. She reorganized furniture at her intimate, one-dressing-room shop, trading couches for chairs, also insisting on face coverings and sanitized hands. Wary of being in fitting rooms with brides, Donowitz instead places a gown on the floor and creates a well from the bride to step in. She later zips and clips the gown outside of the fitting room.

The post-COVID world: Donowitz welcomed three appointments every Saturday in June. She plans to move to four Saturday appointments in July as she inches back to the typical five-appointment Saturday slate. She’s also added Sunday appointments. Her biggest concern in the coming months? Ordering. “Our designers have been considerate, but we need to be judicious in terms of what – and how much – we bring in,” she says.

Silver linings: With in-store time at a premium, Donowitz instituted pre-appointment virtual meetings to gather wedding information and dress preferences and to introduce the appointment experience. With her boutique’s dresses online, Donowitz and brides scrolled through options together and selected appealing gowns. As the virtual encounter streamlined and informed the subsequent appointment, Donowitz says there is a “strong possibility” the practice continues. “Brides appreciated this opportunity to meet without the masks and chat. It relieved a lot of pressure,” she says.

A lesson learned: Donowitz’s experience with COVID-19 confirmed that she needed to trust her gut – in business and life. “I love what I do, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with the store open, so why fight that feeling?” she says.


   Ferndales Bridal
   Orange, Calif.

The impact of COVID-19: Ferndales Bridal, a 2,700-square-foot boutique opened in 1958, closed its doors per government mandate in mid-March. Initially thinking the shutdown might be brief, perhaps a week or two, co-owner Tom Linnert and his team did some light painting and cleaning while responding to customer inquiries. “Our big thing was assuring brides that we weren’t going anywhere,” says Linnert, who co-owns the store with his wife, Connie. When it became clear COVID-19 might demand a longer shutdown, Ferndales pivoted. Most notably, the store instituted a borrowing program for local brides to try on up to six dresses at home. “That was cumbersome, but it showed our brides we were committed to assisting them,” Linnert says.

The long march back: After being closed for 10 weeks, Ferndales reopened in early June with 90-minute appointments limited to one bride and one guest, who must assist the bride with putting on her dress. The store locked its front door and prohibited brides from freely perusing Ferndales’ inventory. Noticing numerous brides on shorter timelines, Ferndales actively promoted off-the-rack purchase options and studied designer inventory. “We became far more attentive to knowing what the designers had available that could be rushed,” Linnert says.

The post-COVID world: Upon reopening, Ferndales unveiled virtual meetings to establish relationships with customers and to identify appointment try-on dresses. The virtual gatherings could become a mainstay at Ferndales, which might also look to limit its appointments. “On a typical Saturday, we can have multiple brides in the store browsing inventory and that can lead to a lot of distractions,” Linnert says. “Brides don’t feel as special and comfortable with so many eyes on them, so maxing out at two, maybe three, appointments at a time is something to take a look at.”

Silver linings: For Linnert and his team, the pandemic underscored the critical importance of customer service. “A refresher on how important it is to establish a relationship, find common ground, listen attentively and exercise patience was important,” he says. “We’re here to help them, not sell them.”

A lesson learned: The combination of COVID-19 followed by the social justice issues that surged into the nation’s consciousness in late May pushed Linnert to be more mindful, respectful and conscientious of others and thankful for the blessings and opportunities he has. “If this is the worst so far, then we’re fortunate and grateful,” he says.