Bridal registries might be efficient — sparing the gift-giver from hours of
shopping and the recipient from having to return unwanted items. But that
convenience may come at a cost: Where once the mom held great sway over
selecting the intimate items that shaped the new household, now Target, Macy’s
and other retailers have taken over that role.
“Decades ago, the main role of the mother of the bride was creating the new
home for the union of two families,” says Tonya Williams Bradford,
assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame. “By turning
to bridal registries, we’ve outsourced to the marketplace the sacred traditions
of planning and outfitting a new family space.”
“For the retailer, it certainly has increased the revenue,” Bradford says.
“And for the bride and groom, there is a broader net for who can participate,
because all that is necessary is to communicate the registry website to
In her ethnographic study “Orchestrating
Rituals through Retailers: An Examination of Gift Registry” (with Notre
Dame Marketing Chair John Sherry), recently published in the Journal of
Retailing, Bradford examines gift registries as part of a larger set of wedding
rituals, and the implications of retailers playing a central role.
Weddings are not only the union of brides and grooms in matrimony and the
creation of new family units, but also a lucrative industry. The research shows
that in 2010 an estimated $19 billion in gifts were purchased from registries
by invited guests, making wedding industry revenues second only to those of
And the cost lies in more than the price tag.
“Roles formerly held by parents and grandparents, we as consumers now
outsource,” Bradford says, “and we’re happy to do it.”
The study reveals a number of findings about shifting the once very personal
ritual of gift-giving to existing squarely within the marketplace.
“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.”
The study considers how gift registries in general have changed the act of
gift giving, as well as family traditions associated with various occasions,
from welcoming a new baby to sending a teen to college.
“We used to make beautiful gifts to celebrate the birth of a new baby,”
Bradford says. “Friends and family would crochet blankets and knit hats and
booties. Now we simply shop a registry at Babies R Us.”
There are ways to preserve a slice of lost traditions, Bradford says.
“For gift-givers, find ways to customize the gift you select from the
registry — make it personal,” she says. “For gift recipients, make receipt of
the gift a ceremonious occasion. Don’t just pick up the package from the porch.
Be prompt and personalize your expression of gratitude, ideally on personalized
stationary. Describe for the gift giver in detail how you intend to use the
Contact: Tonya Williams Bradford, 574-631-8674, firstname.lastname@example.org