Baby Bargains Dishes Dirt

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In total, the Fieldses have sold 1.6 million books. The largest share belongs to Baby Bargains, but their other primary publication, Bridal Bargains, isn't too far behind. That book, which the couple still publishes, broke down the wedding industry the same way Baby Bargains takes baby-product manufacturers to task.

There have been other books, as well. They are currently phasing out a Baby Bargains followup called Toddler Bargains. The book didn't do as well as they'd hoped, Alan says, because when children reach that age, their parents "run out of time to read." Their 1993 book Your New House, a consumer guide to building or buying a house, sold well but proved too time-consuming to keep up to date. They've even taken on Mother Nature herself, with the book Partly Sunny: The Weather Junkie's Guide to Outsmarting the Weather.

But babies and weddings are enough to keep them busy. "They both deal with very emotional purchases, and that tends to be the catalyst for things to go wrong," says Alan. "When you combine emotions and commerce, it's like nitroglycerin."

Take it from the Fieldses: They've learned from personal experience.

There's a longstanding rumor in bridal-industry circles that the Fieldses must have experienced one of the worst weddings imaginable.

"Because this young couple had problems planning their wedding, as all couples do, they decided to attack the bridal industry," wrote Brides magazine publisher Elliot Marion in a 1992 magazine article about Bridal Bargains.

"Ignore all information in this book unless you want a couple of wed-in-Vegas journalists to plan your most sacred day," sneered a recent review on Amazon.com.

And after People magazine profiled the couple, Denise got a cranky call from someone who told her that just because she had a rotten wedding day doesn't mean she should ruin it for everyone else.

"People have accused us of having a terrible experience that launched us in a jihad against the industry," says Alan with a laugh. "But, no, our wedding was fine."

The two met in 1984 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Denise, a native Coloradan, was studying Elizabethan England, and Alan, from Dallas, was focused on product marketing. They moved to Austin, Texas, after graduating, but decided to travel back to Loveland — Denise's home town — to get married.

As they planned the big day, the two got the idea for the book and began secretly shopping gown stores and wedding-cake bakers around Austin, pretending they were going to get married in town. Along the way, they discovered that getting to the bottom of the bridal industry wasn't as simple as rating local wedding DJs.

In 1939, a typical wedding cost $392.30, or $5,700 in today's dollars. By 1990, it was up to $15,280, according to a study produced by Conde Nast, which published several bridal magazines. In 2006, the average wedding cost $27,856, an amount roughly equal to 58 percent of the country's median income.

Industry insiders say today's fiancés (and their parents) are happy to fork over the dough, since people are getting married later in life and therefore have more disposable income. These days, each couple "wants to make a statement about who they are and where they are headed," says David Wood, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants. "Their marriage is so important, and people want it to last a lifetime. They are trying to set the tone for the rest of their lives together."

Skeptical outsiders, however, say the impetus behind the $161 billion industry isn't so simple. "There's always been a lot of money spent on weddings. It's not an entirely new phenomenon. But now they are seen entirely as a consumer event," says Rebecca Mead, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the Perfect Wedding. "Marriage used to be the beginning of your adult life, the time you left home, all these big, big changes, and now for most people, those things aren't true anymore. So I think, in a way, we have to make them more significant."

Wedding professionals, she adds, are happy to encourage them: "The people in the wedding industry have realized the bridal consumers are at a very attractive time in their lives, if you are in the business of selling stuff. They are young, attractive consumers, and the wedding industry knows this is an occasion that people are willing to spend full price on things. Nobody wants to be seen as cheap on their wedding day."

But there's a difference between being cheap and getting swindled, the Fieldses say. Their own wedding was a simple affair at a dude ranch along the Big Thompson River in 1989. Denise wore her mother's gown, and the couple found good deals on flowers and a cake at local shops. "Nothing went wrong," says Denise, before admitting to a small hullabaloo when her dress's zipper got stuck.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner