With COVID-19 is the wedding still on? Kalamazoo bridal shop owner says many brides are postponing

The owner of Memories Bridal & Evening Wear in downtown Kalamazoo says brides are postponing their big day or going smaller. And she's looking for a new "normal."
A woman who had been planning her early-April wedding for more than 18 months took notice when Michigan’s governor started ordering restrictions on group sizes in March.

“She scrambled to change her venue and her plans to make sure her wedding could still happen, even on a smaller scale,” says Adrienne Wissner, owner of Memories Bridal & Evening Wear in downtown Kalamazoo. “With each new restriction, she had to make further changes until just five days before her wedding she had to cancel it altogether when the stay-at-home order was put into place.”

Wissner said that woman, one of her many customers, “was heartbroken, as I know so many of our customers are right now.”

A longtime advisor and confidant of soon-to-be brides, Wissner feels that pain as well as the impact that efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) are having on her business. She says she understands the need for people to shelter themselves away from others and she supports that. But at the same time, “Our biggest selling months are March and April.”

“So for our type of business, the closing of schools and the mandated business closures could not have come at a worse time,” she says. Wissner’s 17-year-old business, which has its main location at 203 E. Michigan Ave. and another (The Prom Shop by Memories) in Grandville, is losing a huge part of its sales for the year. 

The prom business typically accounts for about 40 percent of its annual sales. And it now has two stores filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of prom dresses that it is not able to sell.

Adrienne Wissner, owner of Memories Bridal & Evening Wear in downtown Kalamazoo
“The loss of our prom season means my family and I will not have an income for the year,” Wissner says.

She and her husband Derek, who manages behind-the-scenes business operations and is co-owner, work full-time at the bridal salons, “so our closure is hitting us very hard,” she says. But she says their business is well established and strong and they know they will be able to weather the present storm.

“The wedding industry is a good example of the domino effect of COVID,” says John Schmitt, senior business consultant at the Michigan Small Businesses Development Center at Western Michigan University.  “Memories Bridal is hit hard as are reception halls, caterers, photographers, DJs, wedding cake bakeries and more. COVID has impacted every facet of our life and there is no telling what the new ‘normal’ will be.”

Some downtown retailers are transitioning and are moving to sales online.

A few restaurants are still providing pick-up and deliveries,” he says. “La Familia, Rustica, Cheri’s Chocolates, the Michigan News Agency and Water Street Coffee Joint are a few that I am aware of. Most of our other downtown businesses have closed, for now, minimizing their expenses as much as possible and waiting to when they may be able to reopen.”

He says that when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders limiting the size of gatherings expire or are modified, it will take a while for industries such as food service, salons, gyms and hotels to be restored to any kind of normalcy.

“My hope is that there will be a pent-up demand that -- when it is safe -- will help propel our devastated small business community back to health,” Schmitt says.

Adrienne Wissner says, “My husband and I are fortunate in that we have some personal savings and a line of credit that we can access to help keep us afloat. But our store is our main source of income and things will be very lean for us for quite a while.”

The business has also had to temporarily furlough the 12 workers at its Kalamazoo salon and the 10 workers at its location in the Rivertown Crossings Mall in Grandville. It has not been able to keep them on its payroll.

Memories Bridal & Evening Wear is a 17-year-old business located at 203 E. Michigan Ave. In downtown Kalamazoo.

“With the mandated closure, our business has come to a screeching halt,” Wissner says. “As with most bridal stores, our products are not those that can be easily sold online and so our income has completely stopped. We are continuing to receive and process shipments for our customers to make sure that they receive the items that they had previously ordered. And so, everything is still happening on the back end, but no revenue is coming in.”

She said many brides with late March, April, and May weddings are either choosing to postpone their weddings or are having extremely small ceremonies with just a few witnesses. She says some are postponing a larger celebration until later in the year.

“Our June and July brides are worried that they will need to do the same,” she says. “Everyone hopes to be able to continue with their original plans -- so much time, money and effort has been put into them. But understandably, our customers are stressed and fearful of all the unknowns in our current situation.”

She describes having to lay off her close-knit group of workers as “the most painful part of this experience.” At the same time, she says, “This has been a really hard time for a lot of our customers. There has been a lot of sadness, anger, disbelief and so much disappointment. I think we all understand why the precautions we’re taking are necessary, but that doesn’t take away their heartache at the loss of these big events in their lives.”

She said the highlight of her workweek now is being able to call brides to let them know when their dresses have arrived.

“Even if they can’t come in and see their dresses in person yet, it’s wonderful to be able to share that little bit of joy with our customers even during our closure,” she says. “I can’t wait to be able to celebrate in person with them again!”

Asked if she and her husband are seeking any financial relief from federal, state or local programs being set up to help small businesses, she says that while her main business focus has been making sure customer orders are still on track and everyone has what they need, her husband’s primary mission has been to sift through those financial relief programs and find what works best for them.

Memories Bridal & Evening Wear is a 17-year-old business located at 203 E. Michigan Ave. In downtown Kalamazoo.

“We have been applying for any relief that our business qualifies for to help us cover some of our ongoing expenses as well as to hopefully get some of our staff back to work while we wait for our business to reopen,” she says.

Schmitt says some businesses are trying to take advantage of the Federal Payroll Protections Program (PPP) and the Economic Disaster Injury Loan (EIDL) which provides a cash advance that doesn’t have to be paid back. It can provide up to $10,000 based on an allocation of $1,000 per employee.

“There is also a Small Business Loan Program that the City of Kalamazoo is providing,” he says. “This loan is accessed through the United Way. These programs are filling rapidly and are also subject to change as hundreds of thousands of small businesses nationally are applying.”

Wissner says the experience of shopping for a wedding dress is almost as important as the dress itself. “It is a very emotional and communal experience and does not lend itself to e-commerce,” she says. She says that is why she and her husband “have not jumped on the e-commerce bandwagon.” But they are now looking for ways to provide customers a virtual shopping experience from their homes.

“If the mandated business closure extends for several more weeks,” she says, “we will begin to implement virtual appointments and consultations for our brides so they can continue their wedding planning even when they can’t visit our salon.”

She says brides are still set on buying the dresses they always wanted.

Staff members at Memories Bridal & Evening Wear are shown earlier in the season preparing to inbox and display a huge shipment of more than 250 prom dresses. From left, they are: Jodi Isaacson (consultant), Kelsey Klug (store manager) and Mae Bright

“Everyone’s situation is different,” Wissner says, “But for those brides and grooms who have not had to postpone their wedding plans, they are still looking for the same dresses and suits that they were originally envisioning.”

She says that although the dress is not something many brides want to compromise on, “One thing that I do see changing for brides and grooms with late summer or fall weddings is the shortened timeline they will have to get everything ready for their wedding.”

She says that won’t cause problems for suit and tuxedo rentals for the guys, but “it will mean that we will probably have a lot of brides needing to purchase dresses off the rack when we reopen rather than special ordering a dress and waiting several months for it to arrive (as is the normal process).”

She says every dress in their store is available for purchase off the rack and many of their designers have dresses that can be specially ordered in about two weeks' time.

Wissner said the salon closings and coping with the COVID-19 outbreak has taken an emotional toll on her and her family. She and her husband have three children, ages 3, 5 and 7.

“But I am so thankful that my family is healthy and that we can do our part by ‘staying home and staying safe,’” she says. “With three young kids at home, things are a little crazy and chaotic, but I have appreciated being able to spend more time together and focus on my little ones. We’re trying to be positive and productive and help them enjoy each and every day.”
Schmitt says he is seeing inspiring acts of courage from business people on a daily basis.

“Back during the Great Recession of 2008, there was a saying about big business being ‘Too big to fail.’ Small business, on the other hand, is ‘Too small to quit.’ And what I have been seeing the past month from small businesses throughout the city has been an inspiration in itself.”

No Cinderella

The Cinderella Project of Kalamazoo event for this year had to be canceled, Wissner said. The event that has given thousands of prom dresses away to high school girls who can’t otherwise afford them over the past 14 years, was scheduled for March 27. Working with more than 100 volunteers and more than 2,500 dresses (set up in boutique-store fashion at the Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan location), Memories Bridal has partnered with the Girl Scouts and others since 2006 on the one-day event.

All the planning had been completed and everything was in place, Wissner says. But as restrictions on the size of group gatherings became more and more limiting, “we were forced to cancel our event for this year. If conditions improve and proms are rescheduled for later in the summer, our hope is to find a way to still hold our event but on a smaller scale.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.