Embrace the benefit of hindsight. We've been talking to couples about their wedding registries 3 years + later to learn what they still love and where they went wrong.
We found three primary groups (archetypes if you will):
The Practical: 'utilitatian couples' that used their registry primarily for home essentials
The Millenials: 'experential couples' that used their registry primarily for experiences (mostly honeymoon and travel)
The Shotgunners: 'impulsive couples' who scanned an incredible variety of items just because they could
What did we learn?
Couples found most satisfaction from the gifts that aligned with their personalities. This may not be a shocking outcome - but one people frequently veered from and regretted. It reminds me of the 'economics of gift giving' articles the news floods us with in November/December. The articles always say: holiday gifts miss because gift givers give what they want to receive (or how they want to be perceived), not what the recipient would get the most joy from. Wedding registries are a unique opportunity to escape this. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by registering for things you think you might want, but don't tend to value every other day of the year where stuff isn't all the sudden "free".
Practical Couples: Don't worry about your registry looking boring - you will thank yourself later.
Register predominately for things you will use day in and day out: get those sheets, towels, casual plates, flatware, etc.
Register for items you will use frequently, but are outside your personal price range: like an expensive mixer or enameled cast iron cookware.
Think beyond the kitchen, bed, and bath: Our Practical Couples also highly valued cordless drills, circular saws, and hand tools.
Stay away from things like expensive China. With the exception of a few couples who loved formal entertaining, most of our Practical Couples saw their fancy gifts only when they were moving.
Millenial Couples: Make sure gift giving is easy for your guests - and register for some traditional items.
Use a cash or travel registry service for guests to sponsor parts of your honeymoon - like an expensive dinner, helicopter ride, or hotel expenses. There are many great options available, just make sure to point guests to these services as your preference.
Provide a traditional registry as well. There are just too many guests that still feel like they need to bring you something tangible (despite the fact you would enjoy travel or cash more). If they are going to do it, it might as well be something you want (or something you can take back to a store where you know you can buy other things).
Shotgunners: PUT THE scanGUN DOWN. You have high levels of regret in 3 years.
Don't go to the store when you are on a caffeine or sugar high - it will add to your irrationality.
TALK to your partner and come up with a real game plan about you value the most. But be aware, if you are a Shotgunner, chances are pretty good that you and your soon-to-be likely have different taste (hence the shotgun approach). If you're getting married, you should know how to work through conflict though, so talk this out like you would anything else.
Register in "sets." Even if you split your registry between experiences and items, or practical and impractical things - make sure you don't put so many things on your list that you wind up with 2 plates, a flat sheet, and a dinner in an airport. Focus your registry so you can get all those plates, the entire sheet set, and your entire hotel stay paid for. The biggest regret from Shotgunners was such a random mess of gifts, they weren't very usable or required extensive returns.
This is going to sound ungrateful, but it's incredibly helpful.
Mulitply your guest giving units by what you think the average gift will be worth - then register for 130-150% of that value. For example - you're expecting 150 people. Of that 150, 120 will be couples (so that's 60 giving units) and 30 will be singles (30 giving units) = 90 giving units. If you expect the average gift to be $75, then you should register for: (90 * 75 *1.3 - 1.5) = $8,775 - $10,125 worth of things. Registering for less will result in too few options for gift givers. Registering for too many will create that shotgun effect and you will likely wind up with many incomplete sets.
Register for items in a price bell curve. If you think most guests will spend $75 - the bulk of your registry should be items costing $40 - $110. Register for a few inexpensive things and a few expensive things.
I realize that doing math and plotting your gifts on a bell curve sounds like a recipe for a buzzkill not maximizing joy. And let's be serious, it probably is. So now you just have to ask yourself whether you want quick acting or long lasting [happiness]? (Yes, that's a Seinfeld reference, and I realize that dates me).