R20bn wedding industry hit hard; SMEs close shop as Covid takes its toll

Brides eyeing Instagram-type weddings can spend as much as R1m or more in the lead up to the ‘big day’. In fact, South Africa’s bustling wedding industry is worth over R20bn, but thanks to Covid and the national lockdown, celebrations have been reduced significantly or delayed until further notice. It’s particularly bad news for entrepreneurs and SMEs who usually make up the majority of service providers. Florists, photographers, caterers, and hair and beauty stylists have all taken a huge knock this year.

No one could have known what 2020 would bring. Many people have taken pay cuts or lost their jobs, and a bride who is unsure of her financial situation will be far more reluctant to book a wedding date. This means even more uncertainty for suffering service providers.

Unfortunately, the danger is not yet behind us. Covid-19 infections are caused largely by pandemic fatigue and lapses in safety protocols. This is according to Lesetja Kganyago, Governor of the South African Reserve Bank.

Flowers are important for brides.

He notes that the virus is spreading rapidly in parts of North America and Europe and hotspots have emerged in some parts of South Africa.

“We have learned how to better manage the risks of transmission and the design of lockdowns. However, these waves of infection will continue for some time,” says Kganyago.

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An industry in turmoil

Estimated to be worth approximately $300 billion in March, the wedding industry worldwide was one of the hardest hit sectors by Covid. Growth in the Bridal Wear market will reach $79.7 billion by 2027, according to the Global Bridal Wear Industry report.

The report notes growing unemployment rates and diminishing household wealth as bad news for the financial well-being of the industry. Nine out of 10 small businesses in South Africa are struggling or have closed temporarily because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to TransUnion report on SMEs, just under half of small businesses surveyed are unsure they will survive. Half of all small businesses are extremely concerned about their ability to meet current payment obligations.

Susan Mdlalose

Many of these small businesses in the wedding industry quietly closed shop when the country went into lockdown in March. Others continue to shut down, or contemplate closing as there is no business.

For many vendors, on top of losing income, they still have to pay rent and other property occupation associated costs. For example, running costs for a small boutique shop in a mall is in the region of over R25,000 per month. A florist business can pay as much as R60,000 or more to run effectively.

Read also: The pandemic ruined my wedding plans, but it was just the jolt I needed

Wedding gowns boutique shops

Eurobride, an upmarket bridal boutique in Sandton, Johannesburg recently shut down permanently. For surviving boutiques, it’s no longer business as usual, as wedding celebrations are either being pushed out or cancelled. As a result, financially, the future looks gloomy for these businesses.

Established less than two years ago, Love Divine bridal boutique in Pretoria CBD is no exception. The store predominantly provides a rental service for bridal gowns, with a small percentage for sale. Rental prices range from R5,000 to R7,000 depending on style. Purchase prices start from around R7,500 to R20,000 for luxury gowns.

Business is tough, and the uncertainty brought by Covid-19 makes the future look bleak, says business owner, Susan Mdlalose.

“Safety is a huge concern for brides right now. Many brides want a big wedding, which they cannot afford to host right now. When they don’t buy or hire gowns, we suffer financially,” she says.

Pre-Covid, a number of brides had rented bridal gowns for March to June. These have been cancelled or postponed until further notice. Compared to last year, the number of brides hiring or buying wedding dresses has been greatly reduced.

Spending on cakes has reduced.

To assist brides financially, laybys with no limited time are accepted. Additionally, the boutique runs end of range sales and specials on a regular basis.

“For now, brides are taking a wait-and-see approach, we encourage brides to postpone their big day,” says Mdlalose.

Retrenchments and expansion plans halted

Luckily, Love Divine has managed to avoid retrenchments. However, like most businesses, salary cuts had to be implemented.

Others, like Johannesburg-based celebrity florist and teacher Jill Manson of Jill Manson Flower Journeys have not been so fortunate. Manson had to let four employees go this year, leaving her to run the business by herself. She says that in 22 years of being in business, she has never experienced this level of financial stress before.

The pandemic also thwarted plans of opening a shop for Thobekile Mchunu who bakes decadent cakes for weddings and special events.

Mchunu works full time in corporate and started her business Honey n’ Mustard cakes 10 years ago. The business was doing so well before the pandemic that she planned on opening a shop earlier this year. Those plans have been shelved, and she also lost her assistant. For now, she continues baking cakes at her Kempton Park home in Ekurhuleni.

Budget cuts impacting wedding service providers 

Now that lockdown restrictions have been lifted, more weddings and events have been taking place, but with Covid-19 cases rising, many still fear hosting big weddings, and so they either cancel or postpone altogether.

For those who choose to go ahead, sometimes it doesn’t end well. In the US, the bride, groom and guests contracted Covid-19 at an Ohio wedding recently, according to The Seattle Times.

Although business is ticking along for surviving vendors, budget cuts are eating away at cash flows and income opportunities.

“Sales are down by 60%. Small celebrations with reduced numbers are happening, and this keeps me going,” says Mchunu.

She says the current average spend on cakes is between R700 – R2,500.  Pre Covid, spend was between R550 – R5,000. Mchunu is hopeful these kind of budgets for cakes will return once the world settles into a new normal. She is also actively marketing Honey n’ Mustard cakes on various media platforms to remain relevant in the current market.

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The business of flowers and art of innovation

With hard lockdown globally, the $8.5 billion flower trade industry came to a complete halt, with many losing jobs permanently.

Jill Manson

Manson, who also runs a floral academy, experienced a complete loss of revenue on her events, weddings and floristry classes. It was during this time that she developed content for online courses run through Zoom and changed from a large house to a smaller pop-up shop.

“There have been several other courses since then. I needed to be innovative to stay relevant and earn income from my art.”

Business is slowly coming back with small requests for corporate events and intimate weddings for smaller groups. Manson continues to teach virtually, and deliver flower orders, albeit at reduced budgets. Of those orders for flowers, the spend is between R30,000 and R50,000 – reduced from a high of R500,000.

According to Manson, prior to lockdown, bridal spend was between R100,000 to R500 000 for lavish weddings, and R50,000 to R100,000 for smaller budgets. Lower and middle budgets ranged between R20,000 – R30,000 and R30,000 – R50,000, respectively.

She says the most expensive decor item requested by brides are flower walls or hanging installations, with buttonholes being the least expensive item.

“Unfortunately, we are not likely to see these kinds of expensive wedding budgets for some time, given the global economic prospects,” adds Manson.

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