To some, Davids Bridal Wearhouse is a barbarian at the chapel gates, using racks full of cut-rate wedding dresses to pound away at one of the last bastions of genteel, full-service retailing.
To others, the company's an early wedding gift, bringing low-pressure service, a vast selection and sensible pricing to a market that has been charging customers too much for too long.
Now, Baltimore-area brides-to-be can make up their own minds. The Ardmore, Pa.-based chain is holding a grand opening today for its new store in Glen Burnie -- its first in Maryland and the sixth in its drive to become the nationwide "category killer" of the nuptial niche.
The Glen Burnie store, which actually opened its doors about two weeks ago in the Beltway Crossing shopping center, is three to four times the size of a typical bridal shop.
How it performs will be a test of how far the power-retail concept can go in the Baltimore region. Bridal shops are traditionally high-markup operations that lavish personal attention on their customers.
In contrast, Davids does for wedding and prom dresses what Home Depot does for chain saws. Both stores are part of a retailing trend toward category killers -- warehouse stores that offer everything in one product line at a discount price.
Prices run anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent off comparable prices at traditional bridal stores. Everything's off the rack, but the racks are long and numerous with a wide selection in sizes from 4 to 24.
Wedding dresses run from $95 to $900, plus between $75 and $125 for alterations, regional manager Dee Blackwelder said. Bridesmaid's dresses run about $50. Dresses for mothers of the bride and groom average about $100.
Most dresses carry no designer labels, but Ms. Blackwelder said many come from some of the most famous names in the business. About 40 percent of the merchandise comes with Davids' private label, she said.
For some customers the formula is a hit.
Tammy Davis, 23, fell in love yesterday with a $400 dress for her wedding in December 1993. She bought it with the full approval of her mother, Lauri Peregrino, who said she would have paid $50 or $5,000 as long as it made her daughter happy.
"We didn't come in here for the price. We came here for the selection mainly," said Ms. Peregrino. Having checked it out, she was impressed. "You can just tell the quality of the merchandise," she said.
Leasa Shake, a 30-year-old Louisville, Ky., woman who said she had been conducting "a nationwide search" for a dress for her wedding this fall, said she liked being able to browse through the racks without a salesperson hovering. Some of the dresses seemed to be in older styles, she said, but she liked the prices.
Her father, who will be paying the bill, would love Davids, Ms. Shake said.
Marci Arthur saw it differently. She had just come from the Davids outlet in Orlando and had found it "horrendous," the mother of a bride-to-be said in an telephone interview from a Davids competitor in Winter Park, Fla.
"It was just what they are -- wholesale," said Ms. Arthur, who was springing $1,400 for a Priscilla of Boston dress, with veil, for her daughter. "I think mothers and fathers are willing to spend that much to make [their daughters] look beautiful," she said.
Ms. Blackwelder conceded that there's about 30 percent of the market that Davids won't be able to attract. "We can't be all things to everybody," she said.