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.

A bridal bike? Click image to expand.
A bridal bike?

Weddings might be about love. But they are also about money, as anyone who has ever purchased a $543 cake or the services of a licensed Elvis impersonator will tell you. Couples in America spend about $80 billion a year tying the knot, and their guests spend a sizable fraction of that congratulating them. Indeed, every year, family and friends shell out about $15 billion for gifts chosen via wedding registries—those ever-practical, ever-uncomfortable products of the industrialization of love and marriage.

For 87 years, registries have mostly taken the form of lists on file with department stores. Couples choose their desired china pattern or preferred tea set and leave a note online or in print for their guests to examine. But apparently this was too clumsy. In the past few years, a new class of Web-based registries has cropped up with the goal of using the versatility and reach of the Internet to transform the way happy couples get gifts. Now couples can get whatever they want—really, whatever they want—with the click of a button.

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The granddaddy among them is MyRegistry.com, launched in 2005. The site lets brides and grooms create a centralized registry page (a "universal registry," in the company's terminology) featuring gifts from any store, anywhere. Say a bride decides she wants a new hog from Harley Davidson and thinks her big day would be a good day to get it. She need only head to the item's purchase page, then click on a MyRegistry.com widget that scoops up some basic information, like price and color. The widget puts the motorcycle in the couple's registry, nestled between dish towels, fine china, and whatever else.

In the past year or two, the company has added on a few more new-fangled options to make gift selection and giving even easier. Say a groom is shopping in an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar store and something catches his eye. He can use an iPhone or Android app with a barcode scanner to put the item on his registry on the go, then send it to his Facebook page. The site also lets couples register for cash. (The company is free to users and does not take a percentage of sales. Rather, it makes money through partnerships with retailers.)

The company declined to say how many users it has but says growth has been "explosive." And it has ginned up dozens of competitors. In just a few years, they have taken over a sizable corner of the market. Universal registries last year made up about 5 percent of registries, according to The Knot. Two in three respondents to its survey said they might have made one, had they known about them.

Some competitors, like GiftRegistry360 and the Registry Stop, offer similar services, letting couples centralize their registry in one place. Others have gone niche. For instance, Foodie Registry lets wedding guests purchase, say, an evening at a chef's table at a famed restaurant. A number of companies also help guests purchase small parts of big gifts—gas grills, maybe, or even honeymoons and down payments.

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