Start: Mark Evans

Smarter choices for the bride on a budget

The Globe and Mail

Getting married is exciting. But it can also be expensive, particularly when it comes to wedding dresses, which can cost thousands of dollars - a hefty price for something that may only be worn once.

When Andrea Lown was planning her own wedding, she discovered that ordering a dress is a huge challenge when you have a budget, and that placing an order may have to happen six months in advance.

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Even after she went online, Lown was far from thrilled about the selection available and the impersonal shopping experience. The upside was it gave her the inspiration to start SmartBride Boutique, an online boutique that combines the power of the Web with the experience that consumers want when shopping for a dream dress or other wedding items. The Toronto-based startup has been described as a Craigslist for weddings by providing a place for buyers and sellers to connect online.

I caught up with Lown before she headed off to wedding conference.

When did the business start and what kind of service did you want to offer?

The site launched in September 2008, offering local brides a chance to buy and sell everything from wedding dresses, decor items like centerpieces, table numbers and linens, plus hair accessories - pretty much everything wedding. Bridesmaids and mothers of the bride were also encouraged to sell their shoes, dresses and accessories.

How has the business evolved since it was launched? Any particular lessons or experiences stand out? Any surprises?

We realized our Smart Brides were extremely interested in a great deal. They are savvy shoppers who want to stretch their dollar further, and achieve designer style on a realistic budget. With that realization, retailers also came into the mix. As we chatted with retailers, we came to realize that each season boutiques order new styles and samples, and as a result, there was tons of older, discounted dresses taking up space. They needed a way to clear out discounted inventory to recoup cash and make room for new stock, and so we started to offer our retailer packages.

We've come to understand that the personal touch is very important, even in an online business. There is a trust factor that plays a large role when brides post their much loved wedding items on the site, when brides to be search for their perfect dress and when retailers look to part with their excess inventory. Putting a face to the service has been very important.

What's the business model? How has the economic climate impacted things?

For SmartBrideBoutique.com, the economic downturn in 2009 and the current climate has increased the number of brides willing to either purchase a second hand dress, or sell their wedding dress and decorations after their wedding to recoup some of their costs. In addition to the financial incentives for buying and selling wedding items, the movement towards eco-friendly weddings has also encouraged eco-savvy brides to reuse and recycle using our website, extending the life of typically once worn items. Our revenue sources include advertising, individual listing fees and premium services and retailer listing fees.

What's the competition? Do you have any particular online rivals?

Our main rivals would be Kijiji (quite prevalent in the west), Craigslist and eBay.

Where do you see the business going? Are there any new features in the works?

We're constantly improving the user experience on our website with design tweaks and new features. We're also now offering live help on the website. This really allows us to capitalize on the personal touch we mentioned above.

Every improvement is designed to help us reach our goal of being the fastest way to sell your discounted wedding dress. In addition, we're creating strategic partnerships with related businesses like drycleaners to provide brides and recent brides with trustworthy, hassle free and eco-friendly ways to clean their gently worn dresses.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is a principal with ME Consulting, a digital marketing and social media strategic agency that helps companies create and tell their stories to customers, bloggers/media, business partners, employees and investors. Mr. Evans has worked with three start-ups - Blanketware, b5Media and PlanetEye - so he understands how they operate and what they need to do to be successful. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. He is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh and meshmarketing conferences.

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