Bed, Bath and Bridal Angst

Author: Tara Hunt ’12

Before “I do,” before the trip up the aisle, before the dress and hair and makeup and flowers, there’s the bridal registry.

Once an intimate craft of piecing together a home for a new couple usually done by the mother of the bride, the task has now been relegated to major retailers. Their take was an estimated $19 billion off of registered gifts in 2010, the study, “Orchestrating Rituals through Retailers: An Examination of Gift Registry,” reveals. The research, co-authored by Notre Dame’s Tonya Williams Bradford, assistant professor of marketing, and John Sherry ’74, marketing professor and department chair, indicates that that profit renders the wedding industry second only to Christmas and doesn’t factor in guest travel, monetary gifts or gifts not purchased from registries.

“There is stiff competition among retailers to be the gift registry destination,” Bradford says, “but registries also have changed our social fabric. The notion of gift-giving used to hold much more sentimental value. Now, everything is pretty much purchased, and, sadly, many people don’t put a lot of thought into customizing those purchases.”

But if people are just going to choose a gift from a list, much of the weight then falls on the bride and groom to personalize their registry, a task now rife with tension. Where once brides and their mothers could request certain gifts of specific guests — perhaps larger, more expensive gifts from close friends and family, and more general gifts from acquaintances — the registry now makes all of their desires public knowledge, causing angst for couples in deciding what to register for, Bradford says.

It’s not just dollars and cents that are adding to the burden. What’s most stressful for couples is that their registry, what they ask for, is the first presentation of themselves as a new family unit.

“Where the wedding ritual reflects the transition of two families joining through their reciprocal gifts of individual members to create a new family unit, the gift registry ritual provides an avenue to begin constructing family identity,” says the study, published in the Journal of Retailing. Registries, it explains, paint a picture of what a couple wants for their life together, and who they will become as a family.

Recognizing that possibilities are endless and the task of creating a new nest and a new identity is daunting, stores now provide couples a list of recommended items without considering their actual needs. In a way, says Bradford, commercial establishments have standardized what the ideal home looks like. Does a couple who will live in a one-bedroom apartment, Bradford wonders, really need an eight-piece china pattern? No, she says, but the market has dictated that it is an important thing to register for and if it is missing from the registry, guests will wonder why. Since the request will be public and will be a reflection of them, couples feel anxious about going off script.

But the registry isn’t a bad thing, Bradford insists, especially in a time when brides and grooms live far from family and friends. “The registry becomes a way to facilitate and manage that distance,” she says. What’s important is that families are re-integrated into the process to add a personal touch.

Tara Hunt is an associate editor of this magazine.