Brides of France sells new and used gowns to blushing brides -- and a few who blushingly admit they're not getting married
Uptown is the perfect place for a bridal shop because there's a need, said Bonnie Freeburg, owner of East Calhoun's newest store, Brides of France, 3042 Hennepin Ave. "There are a lot of young people here getting married," she said.
Freeburg, previously a decorator, came upon the bridal industry three years ago on a fluke. She said her daughter was getting married, so they came into the original Brides of France location, on France Avenue, to buy a dress. Freeburg, who had previous women's retail experience, loved the store's concept and began working there part-time while searching for a new decorating job.
A year went by. The owner offered her a full-time position at the same time she was offered a great new decorating job -- so the owner upped the ante and offered to sell her the shop. Freeburg chose the shop.
She said the decorating business is so similar to bridal that it was a tough decision. "We're decorating a bride, like we're decorating a home," Freeburg said, focusing on the whole ensemble.
She said the bridal store's centralized location -- no home-decorating visits -- was a major selling point. Freeburg said she likes the job because of the excitement created over trying on a gown. "A wedding gown should be magical -- when you put it no, you should feel magical," she said.
Two years ago she hired Jerry Douglas, a local promoter and a man she's been seeing, as the shop's vice president of advertising and promotion. (Both said the romantic nature of the business puts no strain on their relationship.)
She said since hiring Douglas the business has improved. "We doubled and tripled sales over previous years," she said -- enough that expanding to Uptown seemed natural.
Freeburg said she chose Uptown because it had a larger store space with more traffic. She said because of those advantages, she's expecting her new shop, which opened in early February, to be an even bigger success than her first.
Borrowed dreams and used gowns
Freeburg said because her store is wedding-focused she's had many bizarre experiences. Aside from men wanting to try on bridal gowns -- which Freeburg noted was no problem for her -- many women admit they're not getting married, but just want to try on a dress.
Douglas said he doesn't understand the "fantasy bride" phenomenon he sometimes sees. Some fantasy brides, Douglas said, go so far as to purchase a dress. "They've got some guy pictured, like Ben Affleck," he said.
However, Freeburg -- who admits to trying on a dress for fun herself -- said she's accommodated the psuedo-brides and found that when they're ready to tie the knot they remember the store and come back. "I couldn't burst their bubble," she said. "It's the most important dress a girl buys."
The new shop is unique because it also sells vintage jewelry and fur coats, and because it sells a majority of gowns on consignment.
In consignment, a bride brings in a used gown; Freeburg marks it down to half its original retail price, and when it is sold, the consigner splits the purchase price with the store.
Freeburg said consignment gowns are meticulously inspected and are required to be no less than five years old, which gives brides the chance to get a really good deal. "A lot of the gowns have never been worn, but they're half off retail price," she adds.
A bridal-business standard is that gowns are not returnable, so if the wedding is cancelled or the bride finds a different dress, she is usually stuck with it, Freeburg said. Consignment offers the chance to cut financial, if not emotional, losses. The shop has 80 percent consignment gowns; Freeburg said 60 percent of those usually sell within 90 days.
Freeburg said consignment dresses hadn't sold as well as new dresses at her France Avenue location, partly because some people attach a stigma or superstition to a dress that's been worn before. However, she said, that's what her selection of new gowns is for.
Freeburg and Douglas said many people are superstitious about buying a gown that had been worn before. "You have women who will not get a used gown because they don't know what happened to [its previous owner], whether there was a divorce or a death," he said.
Freeburg said the previous owner's story isn't any part of the dress. She said that dresses are on consignment for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, Freeburg said, the bride found another dress she liked better, and with the industry's no-return policy, consignment for a never-worn dress is the only option. Other times, she said, people simply decide to elope.
But Freeburg acknowledges that women do come in because the wedding was called off. "Sometimes when girls come in they are very teary-eyed, but I don't want to ask questions," she said.
Bridal business trends
The weather, Douglas said, as well as superstition and emotion, plays into the business. People shop when it's nicer out. He said that when it's cold, people tend to get married in warmer places, like Las Vegas or Jamaica, which usually puts them in the market for a lighter, shorter and more travel-friendly gown.
Douglas said the shop's most lucrative months are May through August, when the store can expect a 20 to 30 percent increase in revenue. He added that other peak times include right after Christmas and Valentine's Day, when many people get engaged. "They get the rings and they're anxious to shop," he said.
As the months go by and her experience grows, Freeburg said she and Douglas are thinking of new promotions and ways to draw more business into the shops.
Freeburg said she would add bridesmaid dresses and a catalogue. "Every time a bride would walk out the door saying she had seven bridesmaids, I saw $2,000 walking out the door," she said.
Advertising, Douglas said, also has a huge impact on their business. He said when most women look for a wedding dress, they look through the newspaper and the Yellow Pages, so Brides of France must be visible there to compete with large bridal chain stores such as David's Bridal.
Douglas -- who has the air of a true salesman himself -- argues that his store has other advantages over larger competitors. He said at a smaller store, people can get much better service and don't have to worry about pushy salespeople.
Freeburg said her marketing pitch is, "It's all about the bride."
So she offers the little things to make gown shopping easy for the bride-- a no-appointment policy, lower prices, consignment options and unique vintage jewelry selection. "A bride can come in here and find everything she needs," she said.
Brides of France 3042 Hennepin Ave.
Hours: M-Sa. 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Description: Full-service bridal salon, including new and consignment wedding dresses, bridal accessories, fur coats and vintage jewelry.
Other locations: 5015 France Ave. S.
Annual revenue: (withheld by owner)
Cost ranges: Prices for wedding dresses range from $88 to $585, although the average cost of a gown at the store is between $350 and $400.