Carol Murray's dream wedding dress has sleeves - sheer, maybe even lacy. She says she's "not fancy," but she wants something beautiful and breathtaking that will fulfill all the bridal clichés about being a princess on the most important day in her life.
And she's shopping for her dress this weekend at Goodwill's first-ever bridal event, in Pennsauken, where she will find at least 100 new and "gently used" gowns - donated by former brides and bridal salons - priced from $99 to $299, as well as shoes, veils, jewelry, and even lacy undergarments.
"If you can't afford a new one, I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Murray, 37, of Hi-Nella said as she browsed for other clothing at the store this week. That's how she learned about Saturday's spectacular, causing her to say, "I was meant to come here today."
It's no surprise that brides like bargains, as Filene's Basement annually draws thousands to its "Running of the Brides," which unleashes the affianced and their cohorts to fight over gowns in the aisles. But buying wedding dresses from thrift stores or secondhand shops seems to be shedding its taboo.
"Brides aren't necessarily willing to give up the idea of having a glamorous, beautiful dress, but they're getting smarter about finding it," said Summer Krecke, deputy editor at weddingchannel.com. "It used to be the dress had to be brand new. But for several years, we've been seeing more brides turning to secondhand stores and Web sites to get the dress of their dreams."
The average wedding gown costs $1,317, about 10 percent of the typical wedding budget, Krecke said. Besides saving money, some brides like the idea of being more eco-friendly and wearing a recycled gown, she said. Others buy through sites like www.makingmemories.org, which donates to breast-cancer research, because they like the idea of giving back while going down the aisle.
The money from any dress purchased from Goodwill goes toward the nonprofit's mission of providing education, training and job services for disadvantaged or disabled people, said Michael Shaw, chief operating officer of Goodwill of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia.
"We just thought it was an incredible way to give people the opportunity to save money in tough economic times on a wedding gown that, most of the time, you're only going to wear once," Shaw said. "And at the same time, you're also helping out a really good cause. It's also an exciting way to get people who have never experienced a Goodwill into a Goodwill. Once they're there, we're sure they'll find something to buy."
Traditionally, Goodwill's sales drop when other retailers find their sales falling. But over the last six months, Goodwill sales have steadily increased by 6 to 11 percent, depending on the store, Shaw said. It's a trend these kinds of stores are seeing across the board: A recent survey by the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops found that, in September and October, 74 percent of respondents had increased sales over the previous year by an average of 35 percent.
"It's a really good idea, especially now with the economy the way it is," Adele Meyer, the association's executive director, said of buying secondhand wedding gowns and accessories. "With the cost of bridal gowns now and mother-of-the-bride gowns and bridesmaids, more people are turning to it."
Setting up for the bridal event at the Route 70 store earlier this week, Mary Palmisano, a Goodwill development and public relations specialist, displayed a strapless Bellissima Couture gown with bolero jacket that featured lace and ornate beading. The dress retailed for $1,500, Palmisano said. Goodwill would offer it for $299.
"It's too bad I already got my dress," said Palmisano, who is getting married in August.
Other offerings included gowns by Jessica McClintock, Demetrios and Saison Blanche, all in various sizes and shades of white and off-white. Some styles were current; others carried clues, such as big sleeves, that they'd been worn decades ago. Some dresses seemed near flawless, while others had small tears or missing trim.
Bridal accessories included rows of shoes in gold, silver and white, full-length veils for as low as $5, and wraps for as low as $1.99. For the other members of the wedding party, Goodwill offered a rack filled with pink and brown flower-girl dresses, each $9.99. Tuxedo jackets and complete suits were being hauled in.
Shaw said he didn't expect the masses would line up outside the store Saturday and make a mad dash inside, but with such deals, he couldn't be sure.
Barbara Jones, 44, said she would not have considered wearing secondhand when she got married 20 years ago. Now, she'd do it without thinking twice. (Because she's still married, she was shopping for other Goodwill clothing on a recent weekday.)
"When you're young, you want the brand-new, sparkly dress," said Jones of Haddon Township. "Now I'm a little more knowledgeable about life."
Carrying a black-velvet dress she'd found, Amy Coleman, 43, of Collingswood, said she loved thrift-store shopping and thought it was great that other people were finding treasures and saving money.
"People are being more practical," Coleman said. "They don't want to focus on just the wedding day. They're thinking of the marriage.
Not everyone is willing to wear secondhand.
"It's bad luck," said two women browsing Goodwill's women's clothing section, obviously concluding that a used sweater or jacket carried no such curse.
Murray dismissed the idea.
"It's good luck if you find a good deal," she reasoned.
Still, she said she'd be reluctant to tell her guests that her dress was from a thrift store.