That was nothing compared to the boondoggles they discovered researching the wedding industry. In 1988, before their own big day, they published 500 copies of an Austin-based wedding consumer guide. After their wedding, they moved on to wedding guides for Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Diego and Denver. In the books, the couple focused on something they had seen repeatedly in news stories: bridal shops that had closed unexpectedly, leaving brides-to-be who had paid hundreds or thousands in deposits without a dress or even a refund. "It wasn't supposed to be an exposé," says Alan. "We kind of happened into it."
They began tracking these shops and noting "guerrilla sales tactics," such as dress stores that purposely ordered wrong-sized gowns so brides had to pay for costly alterations, and florists who marked up costs based on what type of cars customers drove.
They railed against exorbitant charges, like try-on fees at dress stores and cake-cutting premiums at reception sites. They reported to the media that some bridal magazines refused to print ads for dress-rental companies to keep gown makers happy. And they reprinted provocative quotes they discovered in bridal trade publications, like this one, from an unnamed bridal magazine publisher: "Never before in a woman's life, and never again, is she going to be worth this much money to a marketer. There is no price resistance, and she is completely open to new brands."
The Fieldses figured that 10 percent of the industry involved fraud and abuse, amounting to $1 billion a year.
"We were the people who told you the stuff about weddings nobody told you about," says Alan. "It probably made us popular, but it drove the wedding industry nuts."
They were banned from trade shows, and a bridal magazine editor attacked them in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, saying their advice shouldn't be trusted because they hadn't worked in the industry. ("I think that works to our advantage," says Denise.)
"They decided to make a lot of money chopping up industries," says Richard Markel, director of the Association for Wedding Professionals International, in a recent phone interview. "The gown salons have been facing a national crisis since the Internet came about. And they are recommending people go to the gown salons, try on dresses, and then buy them online. It costs somewhere around a quarter of a million to open a gown salon, and they are encouraging readers to waste these people's time and energy and not make a sale. In my mind, I would call that fraud."
Consumers called it useful. In 1990, the local guides were replaced by a national version, Bridal Bargains, and praise spread like wildfire.
"A friend told me, 'I will not allow you to get married without this book," remembers Hilary Winiarz, a Chicago resident who now serves as a message-board moderator on the Fieldses' website. "I think people fall for these books — as in fall in love — because they are all about helping you parse through the chaos.... I planned my entire wedding around Bridal Bargains."
In 1991, the Fieldses got a long-distance call. Oprah wanted them on her show — that Monday. The attention tripled their book sales. They moved back to Colorado and built a 3,500-square-foot home in Monument before eventually settling in Boulder. One newspaper called them the "Ralph Naders of the bridal industry," and it seemed like nothing they could do would top such success.
That is, until Denise got pregnant.
They couldn't help it. The appeal of the "all-in-one" travel-system stroller was overwhelming. It could transform from baby carriage to a car seat to an infant carrier to a toddler stroller — with the baby in the middle of it all never having to wake up! With visions of a blissful tears-free existence, the Fieldses, expecting their first child, threw down $150 for it. They would come to regret it.
"I remember cursing it from the moment I took it from the box," says Denise. "Those suckers are bulky and ridiculously heavy. I hate them."
By that point, the Fieldses had already decided to use Denise's 1993 pregnancy as the impetus to expand their empire. And in 1994, they published Baby Bargains. But while they had already tangled with persnickety bridal consultants and egotistical cake bakers, they weren't prepared for the baby-product industry. There is much, much more at stake, Alan says. "The wedding industry is ripe with ripoffs and scams and hucksterism; the baby industry doesn't have that," he adds. A wedding may cost $25,000, but a baby can easily trump that in just the first few years. In fact, according to Baby Bargains, raising a child to age eighteen costs $1.4 million.