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Forsaking Tradition, Brides Turn to Mail Order

Since the first of the year, more than 25 Chicago-area women have become mail-order brides.

It's not what it seems. Having met the grooms-to-be in presumably more traditional ways, these young women have decided to forsake spending long hours in crowded department stores picking out china and towels for their gift registry. Instead, they're registering for gifts through catalogs.

The catalog gift registries are set up by start-up company Mail Order Bride, Chicago. The company caught the attention of the brides-to-be through an ad that first appeared in Chicago Wedding magazine Jan. 1 and later in the wedding section of Chicago's Daily Southtown newspaper.

So far, 26 brides-to-be and two grooms-to-be have registered for the program. They either called a toll-free number or visited the company's Web site at www.mail-order-bride.com.

The company begins by sending brochures explaining the program, along with registration cards. Registration and participation are free for the couple. Once registered, the couple is sent a stack of participating catalogs, tied together with a lavender ribbon, and a wedding planning workbook.

“The idea is for the couple to open a bottle of wine, spread the catalogs out around them and make a night out of picking out items for their registry,” said company founder and president Barbara Dolan, who has experience in both direct marketing and wedding planning.

After gifts have been selected, the couple mails or faxes a gift list and guest list back to the company.

“Guests are sent an invitation to review the registry, and if they R.S.V.P., that's equivalent to an opt-in, and they get a card reminding them to look for the catalogs in the mail,” Dolan said.

As Mail Order Bride maintains the registry, gift-givers may call the company before making their purchases to make sure a particular gift hasn't been bought yet. Participating catalog companies receive the names free but key code the catalogs sent to Mail Order Bride customers and pay the company a commission on sales.

Noting the size and cost of weddings today, Dolan said, the program is a strong financial opportunity for catalogs.

“The statistics we're working off of are that an average wedding has 200 guests, and the average gift price is $70,” she said.

In addition, the program is expected to offer catalogers access to new types of names.

“It's great way for catalog companies that haven't really explored the gift-giving side of their business to give it a try,” Dolan said. “And we assume that guests generally choose to buy gifts from gift registries that are similar to their tastes.”

The prospect of testing its products' gift-giving potential was one of the draws for Priorities, Wellesley, MA.

“We're a new company, a start-up company and we saw it as a good opportunity to get new customers and different types of customers, because we haven't really gotten into the gift-giving business,” said Lisa Rooney, director of consumer marketing for the catalog, which sells products ranging from sheets and bedding to air filters that offer protection from allergens.

“As it was presented to me, these are people who are a little older, they are busy, they may own their own homes, they are well educated and professional, they are open to new ideas and they are not mainstream” Rooney said. “People who have allergies, asthma or are part of the worried well most likely are looking for ways to improve their home and enhance how they live.”

The company's lighthearted ads, created by Big Cheese, Chicago, state “Mail Order Brides don't get headaches” and are designed to attract unconventional couples.

“It's OK to not have time for every aspect of what you have to do for your wedding and still love it,” said Robyn Davis, head cheese of the agency, “and I love the name of the company. I told Barbara, 'You have to let me play with the name.' ”

The company's brochure and ads are illustrated with famous drawings of Victorian-styled women known as Gibson girls, because Davis thought the women in the drawings have strength, while still being elegant and feminine.

“I like them because all these women are real. They don't swoon over every man they meet, and they look like they might get a headache or might actually be thinking about something,” she said.

Noting that today's couples are getting married later in life and already may have some of the basic household items, Dolan said the company is attempting to offer a variety of products that will appeal to the modern bride and groom. In addition to Priorities, participating catalogs include Ballard Designs, Nat Schwartz & Co., Frontgate and Eximonius.

Talks are under way with companies that offer nontraditional items such as sporting goods, tools and computer supplies.

“We're trying to get the men involved as much as possible,” Dolan said. “When we conducted focus groups, men's eyes would light up when we talked about putting tools, camping, automotive and computer products in the registry — and that's great to see.”

The appeal to the modern couple was a strong draw for participating catalogs.

“It's early to see results, so we're talking a bit off the cuff right now, but the people she's going to attract are not very mainstream. These are people who have a little bit of a different style, people who know how to decorate and feel confidant about their style and their purchases, and that fits well with Ballard,” said Megan Hancock, marketing director for Ballard Designs, Atlanta.

Though Dolan has so far been limited in the amount of questions she can ask of the future brides who inquire about the program — they often call from work — they seem to fit the profile she expected to attract.

“From the tone of their voice and their confidence level, I'd say they're generally hip, professional women in their late 20s,” she said.

Though Mail Order Bride currently has advertised only in the Chicago area, the company has plans and investors lined up for a nationwide launch in the summer.

In addition to going national and adding more catalog titles, the program will eventually move to a third-party catalog request fulfillment company.

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