The Value of Transparency

I know I said I wasn't going to blog about wedding planning.  It turns out that this was a lie.  The economics of the thing are just fascinating.

First rule:  there are no awesome bargains, particularly in DC.  If you want to save money on the catering, you have to rent a venue . . . and the venues price accordingly.  No one in DC has a back yard which serves as reasonable competition for a wedding, and hello, price inflation!

(Why are you getting married in that pricey hellhole, I hear you cry.  My hometown is Manhattan.  Peter's hometown is on Florida's Emerald Coast. These are not noticeable price improvements, particularly when you factor in travel to, like, meet vendors and taste the food.  Now, if one of us had been born in Topeka, we could have a slammin' hometown wedding on a thin budget, but there you are.)

Second rule:  transparency is not at a premium in the industry.  They strenuously try to hide their prices from you until you they can get you into the shop and strenuously imply that a wedding without 4,000 calla lilies won't make you feel really married.

Since Peter and I are a) journalists and b) in agreement with each other and our families that we are not going to spend any sum that might reasonably function as the downpayment on a house, I don't want to waste time talking to vendors who cannot deliver on our budget. So especially in the case of caterers, if you don't have a menu--with prices--on your website, you don't get a call from us.

I am wondering whether this is leading to greater transparency--and thus price competition--in the industry.  I suspect that it's probably just segmenting the market.  High end caterers who don't want to listen to Peter and I whine that we really can't afford to pay one squillion dollars a head even if it is hand-picked Argentinian moss in the garnish, will continue to rely on word of mouth and the society pages.  The ones who cater to a more, er, thrifty audience, will put up packages and prices . . . and probably see their margins competed downward.

Which is rough.  Most brides feel that the caterer must be raking it in . . . $100 a head for a few itty-bitty hors d'oeuvres and a piece of steak?  But my mother was a caterer for a while, and once you've factored in things like staff, insurance, inventory, spoilage, downtime, and so forth, those margins start to look pitifully thin.

All that said, the one thing I actually have bought so far, the wedding dress, turned out to be a joy.  I read all the horror stories about bridal salons, and the way they thwart competition and exploit you at every turn for "extras" like fittings, alterations, and ironing the dress.  Labels (illegally) scissored out of dresses and photos forbidden so you can't comparison shop.  Industry mags that tell them how to manipulate you into a sale.  No one allowed to look at the dresses, which have to be pulled by a "consultant" to insure that you don't spy one cheaper than your budget that you might like.

Then while I was at my family reuinion in western New York, I stopped in at this shop, which is run by my first cousin once removed.  It's friendly rather than fancy.  The racks are open, the dresses are reasonably priced, and all the alterations are included.  I tried on half the dresses in the store, and bought the one that Janice picked out--which was one of the mid-priced dresses.  I slept on the purchase with no hassle.

I have no idea whether this experience is typical, but I'm not quite as suspicious of wedding vendors as I was a few weeks ago.  I suspect this may cost me somewhere down the road . . .