Cream-colored wedding gowns hemmed with lace cram clothing racks on a dirt path that leads to Suzhou’s Huqi Street. Famous for its cluster of matrimony related dress shops located just a stone’s throw away from the city’s popular tourist destination Tiger’s Hill, Huqi Street is popularly known as Wedding Dress Street because it is near the production epicenter of China’s wedding dress industry. This is where eager Chinese brides come looking for that one timeless gown to steal their breath away.
Actually, make that more than one gown — the price of which is most likely to cause breathlessness. Among China’s prospering masses, weddings have become grand, all-day affairs involving much photography, numerous outfit changes and multiple frocks. Not surprising, then, that the wedding dress business is booming. Some 13 million couples tied the knot last year, in the process spending nearly RMB 16 billion ($2.6 billion) on wedding dresses alone, according to the China Wedding Development report.
Yet all is not well along Wedding Dress Street, nor is it in cosmopolitan Shanghai among the glitzy wedding stores on Huaihai Road, where dresses cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 dollars to rent or buy. That’s many times the average monthly disposable income of an urban citizen of around $500, according to government statistics. And if you listen to the grumbling of shopkeepers, sticker shock is producing many runaway brides who are shunning traditional retailers and buying their dresses online, where prices are lower.
“Our business has definitely been affected” by online shopping, said Su Ding, 40, who sells traditional Chinese wedding gowns called qipaos on Wedding Dress Street. “Our yearly sales are down from two years,” Su said. “If you buy a gown from Taobao you can return it but if you buy it here, there’s no way you can return it,” Su said. E-commerce “has had a great impact on my business,” agreed a shopkeeper surnamed Wang who has had his Huqi Street store for nearly six years and sells wedding evening gowns that go for around RMB 180. “The prices are so cheap,” Wang complained.
For Nora Hsu, buying three wedding dresses from online vendors on China’s giant Taobao Marketplace for a total of RMB 2,400 ($393) was a matter of practicality. The 32-year old Taiwanese professional was set on finding a wedding dress with sleeves. “Living in Taiwan, if I buy small things off Taobao, the shipping costs don’t make it worth it so I never bought anything from the website before,” said Hsu. “But this time because I really couldn’t find wedding dresses with sleeves in Taiwan so I decided to buy it on Taobao.”
After spending more than four days researching her quarry, she settled on three dresses, one of which was a keeper: a bridal gown with a plunging v-neckline, delicate lace sleeves and a frothy organza train. The design looked inspired by luxury designer Elie Saab whose gowns costs thousands. Bought on Taobao, the damage to Hsu was RMB 1,600 ($262). Hsu not only saved money on her dress but was able to return the two other dresses she decided she didn’t like.
Hsu only wanted one gown, but in China, the need for several outfits for the big day is being driven by culture and wedding-industry marketing. As more and more Chinese couples blend Eastern and Western wedding traditions for their ceremonies, they are participating in a greater number of rituals such as taking engagement photos.
With the concept of ‘face’ so important in China, having many wedding outfits shows off the status of the couple and helps maintain their standing with relatives. Brides interviewed for this story said a red qipao for the tea ceremony, a white wedding dress and two evening gowns are usually considered mandatory, especially in wealthier Chinese cities.
With more dress-up decisions to make, shopping online offers an easier way to find and sort through a variety of dress types without tramping from shop to shop. “Brides are drawn to buy their dresses online because of the diversity of choice and the convenience of online shopping,” said a company representative from a Tmall.com wedding store called TSLYZM. “Brides who shop from our store have a clear idea of what they want and what kind of trends are popular.”
Faced with this influx of e-commerce competitors, many traditional brick-and-mortar bridal shops in Suzhou are taking a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach by opening Taobao stores or by selling their designs to Taobao resellers.
“Most Taobao sellers don’t have their own factories,” said a vendor named Liu, who only gave his last name. Liu’s shop sells ancient Chinese imperial costumes for couples to pose in for wedding photos. “We have our own designers and factory. We sell mainly through our store but also on Taobao. You have to have a Taobao store, the e-commerce impact is too powerful to ignore.”
Some Suzhou sellers who straddle both offline and online worlds lament the ‘return culture’ of Taobao. Taobao vendors’ customer-service policies, bred in the online marketplace’s super-competitive environment, allow shoppers like Hsu to essentially ‘test drive’ dresses and return them if they don’t like them with no questions asked. Such policies complicate purchases and can cut into profit margins.
“Brides now expect to be able to compare prices and they will naturally pick the dress that gives them the most value,” said another shopkleeper surnamed Hu. She sells evening gowns encrusted in fake crystals and operates a Suzhou shop and a virtual Taobao store. “If they don’t like it they return it.
“But what can we do?” said Hu, 33. “It’s tough competing with Taobao.”