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.

Annie Lowrey Annie Lowrey

Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.

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.

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.

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.

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.