One of the joys of independent retailing is being able to offer a truly personal service. Helping people find their dream dress for their special day is a really rewarding experience. That's why I find it so upsetting to hear about all these poor prom girls who have been badly let down by purchasing a dress online from a foreign website. We've had more than ever coming into the shop this season, distraught parents in tow who have lost out on money and have an unhappy teenager on their hands.
Those that have actually received their dress - yes some have not seen anything since they parted with their money - are often disappointed that it is not the right size or not good quality or a different colour to what it seemed online. Many dresses that are flagged up as being made by a certain designer are often in fact fakes. Others have discovered that what initially looked like a brilliant bargain has cost them more because they have not taken into account import charges and VAT costs, which on some US and Chinese sites conveniently go unmentioned.
The most common question we get is 'Can you match the price of the US web site?' and there are web sites that will even offer free worldwide shipping to entice you into buying from them. We know from customers' experience that buying from abroad can often not be as good value for money they first thought, especially if there ends up being a problem or it is the wrong size or fit.
The other enticement from websites in China or the US are to mark the invoice as 'Sample' and give a false price so you pay lower import duty and VAT. We found one site that actively promoted this saying:
'And sometimes, we will choose the best shipping method for you according to your event date for you to get fewer taxes. And we will also do something to help you to get fewer taxes or even free taxes, for example, we will put " Sample" , and lower amount (maybe USD 30, USD 50, USD 80) on shipping bill. If you do not want these words appeared on shipping bill, please inform us when ordering. '
As the person who is importing the goods you are legally responsible for this and UK Customs are always on the look out for goods coming into the country who are trying to evade import duty and VAT.
You should also be aware that if you need to send the dress back for some reason, the cost of return is generally at your cost and can be as much as £30. Import Duty and VAT are not refunded when you send a dress back so this will cost you £99!
The US web sites don't often give you details of the additional charges you will incur when your goods come into the UK, the free shipping claims can look very enticing. We hear so many horror stories from customers who were tempted by the apparent savings and it has ended up costing them more than buying from a UK stockist.
Sometimes it saves in the long run to make the effort to go shopping in reality rather than doing it online.