Online wedding registries: Are they crass, thoughtful, or both?

Commentary about business and finance.
March 30 2011 5:56 PM

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The new online wedding registries are becoming very popular.

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For those balking at the commercialism of it all, there are do-gooder registries, like the I Do Foundation. It lets couples designate charities and partners with stores willing to donate a percentage of proceeds to a charitable cause. And for those loving the commercialism of it all, there are sites that let couples register for gifts and then take home nothing but cold, hard cash. Consider Deposit a Gift. It allows brides, grooms, and anyone else to register not just for goods and services, but experiences. Want to buy a happy couple dinner and a movie? Go ahead and pay for it, and cross it off on the digital list. The couple will receive the cash to purchase said experience and can tell you all about it later. Other sites also let couples pick out items but then collect in currency—SimpleRegistry, WedandWish, ListCharming, AGreatAffair, and Zank You all do basically the same thing.

The sites provide a kind of cover for brides and grooms strapped for cash or space—one way or another, they offer flexibility. Co-worker Dave purchases his friend Annie a new computer monitor for her wedding, but she gets to buy it and pick it up after she has moved cross-country. Auntie Patricia gets the warm and fuzzy feeling of picking out a toaster for her favorite nephew, but he gets to use the money for rent without hawking the thing.

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It does all seem a bit crass. Isn't the point of a registry to allow couples to let friends know what they need for their new home? Why not just end the charade and ask for cash? Such registries, for things like down payments or for items to be given in their cash equivalent, have certainly raised the hackles of some etiquette advisers. Just this week, for instance, Talley Sue Hohlfeld, resident Miss Manners at Martha Stewart Weddings, cautioned against them: "I'd advise against this type of registry … because of the feedback I've received when I mention the press releases—people are aghast. Even those used to writing checks as wedding gifts thought it was inappropriate. So I vote no." Slate's own Prudie concurs—or, at least, says that couples should keep tact in mind.

But social stigma is not actual sanction—and the proliferation of such sites implies that the stigma isn't that bad. Changing mores are likely part of the story. The Knot's market research shows that 88 percent of engaged couples register, and that in 2010 79 percent of those couples used online tools to manage their registries, up from 69 percent in 2009. Maybe today's brides and grooms simply appreciate the flexibility that such sites offer. And maybe sending a relative or friend to an online registry is so commonplace that the savvier, webbier versions do not seem strange or off-putting.

There is an economic underpinning as well. Traditionally, registries were a way for wedding guests to help young couples set up a home—and 50 years ago, the dishware, silverware, kitchen goods, linens, and bath items that made houses comfortable were relatively more expensive. That is because prices for household goods have not kept pace with inflation: Since 1967, the government's index of prices for home goods has tripled, while the index for all goods has increased six-fold. At the same time, couples have been marrying later, meaning both that they earn more at the time of marriage and that they tend to set up households before the big day more often. Many couples simply don't need traditional registry items. Maybe they want a motorcycle instead. Whether Auntie Patricia wants to help buy it—that remains to be seen.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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