When coronavirus caused boutiques to temporarily close, most brides were left wondering: How am I going to find a wedding dress now? Waiting a few weeks to go shopping may not seem like a huge deal, but wedding gowns can take up to nine months to arrive, so time is of the essence for many brides who have already set a date.
With in-store shopping on hold, many retailers are offering virtual options. But how do virtual wedding dress appointments work? And are brides finding them useful? TODAY Style spoke to the boutiques and brides to find out.
Why are bridal boutiques using virtual appointments?
Like many businesses, bridal boutiques have been exploring creative ways to serve customers during temporary store closures. For many stores, virtual appointments have been a mutually beneficial solution.
"Brides were so disappointed that they could not try on dresses during the COVID-19 quarantine, so we brainstormed to come up with a way to keep our brides excited about their weddings and keep our business viable," Angelita Sorensen, boutique manager of San Antonio's Bridal Connection at Stone Oak, said.
Most brides prefer to try on dresses in store, but pressing pause on the wedding gown search isn't an option if the date is rapidly approaching.
"Virtual appointments are essential for brides who want to get married this fall or winter, but have not yet selected their gown," said Beth Chapman, owner of The White Dress by the Shore in Connecticut and founder of Beth Chapman Styling.
Boutiques have had to act fast to organize different types of virtual appointments, and there have been a few hiccups along the way, but it seems like a logical solution for many tech-savvy stores.
"We have always done live Facebook and Instagram and thought that we could show the dresses virtually, and help brides select a group of dresses that we could either deliver or ship so that they could try them on at home," Fatima Rodrigues, founder and director of operations at Alexandra's Boutiques in Massachusetts, said.
How do virtual bridal appointments work?
If you've been dreaming about that magical "Say Yes to the Dress" moment, a virtual appointment may sound anticlimactic. But many boutiques across the country are offering brides a range of virtual options to make it feel special and personalized.
At David's Bridal locations nationwide, brides can text back and forth with a stylist to get advice on measuring themselves at home, finding the right undergarments and more. The store is also offering phone appointments and will roll out video chat in the coming weeks.
Alexandra's Boutique in Fall River, Massachusetts, has a twofold approach to virtual wedding dress shopping that begins with a 90-minute video chat where the bride shares insight into her personal style and the consultant shows off a range of dresses that could work for her style, budget and timeline.
"We then either deliver or ship the dresses to the bride and she has another virtual appointment with a stylist to try on the dresses and see what she likes, and we are there to guide her through the process and answer any questions about the dresses and fit. We are also part of the 'yes to the dress' moment, which is really important for us," Rodrigues said.
Heart to Heart Bride in Webster, New York, offers a somewhat similar experience that begins with brides filling out a style questionnaire and sending along inspiration photos. The boutique then sets up a follow-up video chat.
"We pull a variety of gowns based on all of the information we have talked with the bride about, and we put them onto mannequins so that we can walk her through each gown," Heart to Heart Bride owner, Sarah Ashworth, said. "We talk and connect just like in person, and she narrows down her choices to the gowns she will take home to try on, with a $150 deposit per gown, (up to five gowns)."
After a no-contact gown pick-up, the bride has the gowns for up to 48 hours and can try them on at her leisure.
Some bridal designers, like Galia Lahav, are even enlisting models to try on gowns during virtual calls so that brides can better visualize what they look like in person.
Bridal Connection, a shop in San Antonio, offered virtual appointments while the store was temporarily closed. Now that the boutique is open, several brides have said "yes" in person to the gown they fell in love with during their virtual appointment.
How do virtual appointments compare to the in-person experience?
Virtual wedding dress appointments don't have the same pomp and circumstance as an in-person session, but that doesn't mean they can't feel special in their own way.
"At first, we wondered if the connection our stylists have with our brides would be difficult to experience virtually, but we have found that it is the opposite. Because of this isolation, brides, just like all of us right now, are so excited to connect," Ashworth said.
Of course, video or phone consultations can come with a few challenges, and stylists are definitely learning along the way.
"The biggest challenge for the stylist is that she can't help the bride try on the dress and explain in person that we can do whatever she needs," Rodrigues said. "The other disadvantage is that sometimes, a bride thinks she wants a look and when she puts it on, it is not flattering or it just does not look good. In the store, we can easily go and find another dress and brides many times end up picking a dress totally different than what they envisioned."
Still, the boutiques TODAY spoke with cited a range of benefits that are unique to virtual appointments, including: flexibility, more time to decide on a dress and an introduction to the shop for brides who are just beginning their search.
"While some brides are waiting for firmer plans to start shopping, we do have brides who have a lot of questions and want to get started on their shopping experience. The virtual appointment is perfect for them because they get one-on-one attention in an experience that totally caters to their needs and timeline," said Ann Campeau, director of National Bridal Retailers Association.
What do brides think?
After worrying about store closures, many brides are taking matters into their own hands and exploring multiple virtual dress shopping options.
Educator Bridget Cavaiola was supposed to get married in October, but is looking to reschedule as far as a year away due to coronavirus uncertainty. She spent a lot of time perusing dresses online but hadn't had the chance to visit a store yet. Then coronavirus hit.
"On a whim, I saw that David's Bridal was having a huge sale a few weeks ago so I bought a dress online I had been looking at for some time," she said. "The box was sitting in our bedroom for well over a week and I would stare at it every day feeling sad that my bridal party and my mom couldn't be there with me when I tried on my first dress. I jokingly told my fiancé that he would have to be blindfolded and navigate buttoning the back of it for me, but he wasn't allowed to look at all."
During a video chat with a few friends, Cavaiola decided to host a virtual "unboxing" of the dress.
"It was the catharsis I needed and the push to go and try on the dress later by myself in our temporary apartment bedroom. It wasn't the fit for me and had the itchiest lace details under the armpits, so I boxed it back up and shipped it back," she said. "But I 'broke the seal,' so to speak, on my dress shopping, and now have a better idea (of my) size and style for the future. And now, if we have to postpone, I know I have more time to look."
As stores begin to slowly reopen, virtual consultations can be a great way for brides with underlying health conditions to start their dress journey.
"I have an immune system deficiency, so I want to make sure I spend as little time out in public as possible. My local boutique, Bridal Connection, offered a virtual appointment on FaceTime and I fell in love at first sight with a gown," Denalyn Rogers told TODAY Style.
A couple days later, the bride visited the recently reopened shop and realized she had found "the one." Her mother, who lives in Ohio, was even able to join via video chat. Rogers said she's grateful for the option to start shopping virtually and is thankful that the boutique has implemented extensive cleaning methods to keep brides safe.
"They did a fabulous job of keeping the in-person appointment as sanitary as possible by limiting guests, requiring everyone to wash their hands as soon as they arrived, steaming each dress between each wear and requiring everyone to wear masks," she said.
Francesca Bastianini and her fiancée are scheduled to get married in February 2021 and she had previously visited two bridal shops in January.
Several of Bastianini's family members and friends were planning to travel to New York City for another appointment in mid-April, but then it got canceled due to temporary store closures. Determined to keep moving forward with her search, the bride decided to improvise a bit and scheduled a video chat with her loved ones to look at dresses together online.
"I shared my screen to show the dresses from BHLDN I had wanted to try on, as well as a Pinterest board of things I liked, and digital editions of an Australian wedding magazine for queer women called 'Dancing With Her.' We went through and looked at options and talked or shared links to things they thought might look good on me," she said.
Bastianini didn't end up picking out a dress and admits that she likely wouldn't order one without trying it on, but said the experience gave her a better idea of what she wants. After learning that BHLDN is now offering virtual consultations, the bride is considering setting one up but would still prefer an in-person appointment.
"Given that I still have some time, I am waiting to see when stores will open again. I realize wedding clothing has long lead times, so I am aware that this means I may end up needing to find something off the rack that only needs minor alterations but am still hoping for something that makes me feel great," she said.
Vanessa Mata is getting married this November and has all the details planned — except her wedding dress. After a FaceTime consultation with Bridal Connection, she was able to head into the salon once it reopened for an in-person appointment.
"We tried on the dresses I had chosen during the FaceTime call and I liked them, but didn't love them," Mata said. "My consultant said 'I have two dresses I know you will love, I'll be right back!' She grabbed them, came back, and I tried them on. I picked the second dress because it was perfect!"
Will virtual appointments outlast the coronavirus?
Many boutiques will remain closed for at least a few more weeks, and others that are reopening will find a whole new world. With virtual appointments providing comfort to nervous brides, many bridal shops plan on continuing the practice.
"Although the virtual stylist and virtual appointment experience was designed to support brides amid store closures and stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, we’re excited to continue to offer both virtual and store appointment options as a permanent solution going forward," Callie Canfield, vice president of marketing and communications at David’s Bridal, confirmed.
And while visiting a store in person may continue to be the first choice, virtual appointments offer multiple benefits to brides who can't visit a shop in person for a range of reasons.
"I can see stores continuing to offer this option for brides who are considered high risk for the coronavirus and need to stay home longer. I also see hybrid appointments developing. Many stores will have to limit the number of guests in their store at one time, so being able to offer a virtual watching appointment to other guests, while the bride is in the store with just one or two family members, may be a great way to follow federal and local social distancing guidelines while still providing that experience in the store for the bride," Campeau said.
The most important lesson for brides to take away? Wedding planning doesn't have to stop just because of stay-at-home orders.
“Couples can take virtual venue tours, browse photos from photographers and videos from videographers and read reviews of all vendors they’re looking to book for their day," said Kristen Maxwell Cooper, editor-in-chief of The Knot, said. "Love is not cancelled, and it’s been incredible to witness how couples and vendors are coming together to support each other and this notion.”