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Opinion | India’s big fat wedding industry is slowdown-proof

The past decade has seen India’s wedding industry boom and also revealed itself as one haven of a sector, resistant to recessionary trends elsewhere

A few years ago, I was on a holiday in Mumbai where a friend was planning her sister’s wedding. To get a sense of the location, outfits, décor and invitations, she had to go through multiple email threads, WhatsApp groups and websites. Not only was the process extremely inefficient and disorganized, but the family was stressed out, exhausted and not enjoying what was supposed to be the “most magical time" in their lives. I asked around and found that most brides felt the same way.

I went back to New York where I was working at Morgan Stanley and did some research on the Indian wedding space. I found that despite the size of the industry and the cultural significance of Indian weddings, India had no reliable platforms for brides to fulfil all their wedding needs. Though my only entrepreneurial experience thus far was a small restaurant-discount startup I had at Brown University with a few friends, I decided to take the plunge. I moved back to India and, a year later, The Wedding Brigade was born, a one-stop platform where brides could find curated and verified wedding content, products, venues and services. The business has given me a front-row seat to not just the intricacies of wedding planning, but overall industry trends as well.

The Indian wedding industry has always been a robust contributor to the nation’s economy. Given the size and scale of the average function, the sheer variety of services and products involved, and the number of people engaged in putting together this grandest of affairs, that is only to be expected. However, the past decade has seen the industry boom to another level and, in the process, it has revealed itself to be much more resistant to macroeconomic trends than other consumer-led sectors.

That should hardly come as a surprise. A recent KPMG report estimated India’s current wedding market at $50 billion, growing rapidly every year. With close to half of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population under the age of 30 and more than 10-12 million weddings held annually, a steady flow of future nuptials seems assured.

Weddings represent an irreplaceable part of our cultural fabric, and many families are willing to go to any length to ensure that every aspect of the occasion is perfect. They are planned well in advance and frequently scheduled to coincide with auspicious dates on the calendar. Parents begin saving for their children’s weddings as soon as they are born and allocate a significant portion of their life’s savings to the event. Some estimates suggest that up to one-fifth of an individual’s total lifetime wealth is poured into this occasion.

Signalling the social and financial status of the families involved, weddings have seen the glamourization of traditional ceremonies, such as the haldi (turmeric ceremony) and mehendi (henna ceremony), and also the incorporation of western dos, such as stag and hen parties, and cocktail evenings, which in recent years have increased the popularity of destination weddings in foreign locales. Indeed, India’s reputation for hosting extravagant celebrations has become so widespread that the concept of the “big fat Indian wedding" has transcended borders. However, an industry that assumes itself to be immune to the broader economic environment is setting itself up for failure. Thankfully, the wedding industry is cognizant of this peril and has taken steps to safeguard its pre-eminent position in India’s festive calendar by constantly seeking to diversify its offerings, offer lots of customization/personalization, and being able to work around small shifts in budget.

So far, we have not seen a large overall reduction in the size and scope of the average Indian wedding, but an underlying concern over the state of the economy may prompt families to be more discerning in some of their choices. This could manifest itself through compromises across an array of options, such as a switch from couture clothing to ready-to-wear options for the family, opting against a famed photographer, and choosing a local destination instead of a foreign one. All of these options can result in significant savings, while doing little to detract from the overall spectacle of the event. This is especially true of the Indian middle class, long renowned for frugality and financial prudence. Yet, after spending most of their lives working towards this one pivotal moment, they are unlikely to scale back their expenses much on account of an economic slowdown. In this instance, the only visible sign of it would be a reduction in relatively frivolous expenditures such as spending at wedding exhibitions, or perhaps a slight reduction in the number of guests. Spending on key staples such as venue, decor, food, bridal lehenga (bridal dress), and jewellery stay largely unaffected.

As the industry continues to mature and formalize, it will enter an entirely new phase of professional expansion and growth. Ultimately, the Indian wedding is a bread-and-butter industry. Come rain or shine, weddings will happen and forever remain a highlight in the lives of the families involved. So, as we begin a new decade under a cloud of worry, I say, “Here comes the sun."

Sanna Vohra is chief executive officer and founder of The Wedding Brigade

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