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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Avoiding Disreputable Vendors

by Scheherezade & Shira

 

The vast majority of people who sell belly dance supplies are honest and do their best to offer high-quality goods with satisfactory customer service. When dealing with mail-order customers, reputable vendors either ship promptly or, if currently sold out of an item, tell you when to expect it and offer you a refund if you're unwilling to wait.

However, as with any profession, belly dancing does attract a small number of unscrupulous characters. Here is advice on how to avoid them, and what to do if you encounter one.

 

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A Few Words from Shira About Return Policies

Don't assume that the vendor you're dealing with will automatically accept returns on everything you feel like returning. In my experience, nearly all belly dance vendors will accept returns on merchandise that is clearly defective, as long as you haven't actually used it. But in order to qualify for a return, you'll need to have the receipt that proves when you bought it and how much you paid, and you'll need to clearly demonstrate the defect. You'll also need to return it in unused condition, and most vendors are alert enough to tell whether it truly is unused. No, you don't get to wear it once and then return it.

Assuming the product is free of defects, don't expect a refund if you change your mind and decide to return it, because most belly dance vendors probably won't give you one. As a buyer, you have a responsibility to do your own homework and make sure a product is what you really want before placing an order. When buying clothing, take current measurements of yourself and check the vendor's size chart so the vendor can send you the right size. Don't say what size you think you are, or assume it's the same size you wore 12 months ago. If you're not sure whether a given color will work for you, ask whether a fabric swatch is available before you finalize the order. If you're thinking about buying a video, ask other dancers what they think of its lighting, sound quality, content, and value. If your friends have never seen the video, use the various mail groups and forums on the Internet to research it.

You might be accustomed to dealing with huge mainstream mail-order firms such as Lands End who guarantee satisfaction or your money back. But don't expect belly dancing vendors, who are often small businesses run entirely by the owner, to be able to do the same.

When you return an item, you cause a lot of cost and extra work for the vendor. She must examine your receipt and verify that you indeed purchased the product from her, to avoid sending you a "refund" for a product you bought elsewhere. She must examine the returned item to make sure it's still in unused condition. She needs to adjust her accounting records to show that the item was returned to avoid incurring income tax or sales tax on the transaction. She loses money on the cost of the postage and shipping materials she used to send you the original article. If she sells one-of-a-kind items such as hand-made costumes pieces or assuit, she may have to add these items back into the catalog on her web site. She may need to pay a webmaster to do that for her . If you paid by check, she must verify that your check cleared through the bank, just in case you wrote a bad check for the original purchase. If you paid by credit card, she will lose money because the credit card company charges for every transaction, including your original payment and then your refund.

Shira

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.

All of this is very time-consuming and expensive for the vendor. The small businesses who sell to belly dancers can't afford to pay the price for your indecisiveness or your laziness. So please try to be fair to them — you too have a responsibility to be ethical and courteous.

 

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How To Avoid The Bad Ones

Again, the vast majority of belly dance vendors are honest, ethical people who try very hard to deliver what they promised. Some may be difficult to deal with because they're disorganized, going through temporary family problems, or swamped with work from their day jobs. Although they may be frustrating to do business with, such vendors have honorable intentions.

There are, however, a small number of vendors whose ethics may be questionable. Just because someone gives you a receipt and a business card doesn't mean they are trustworthy. Those things are worthless if you don't get your merchandise. Winning a case in small claims court and collecting a judgment are not easy to do. So it's best to control the risks at the time you make the purchase.

Before handing over any money, ask the vendor his/her policy on returned merchandise. One frequent source of conflict arises when a customer wants to return merchandise and the vendor has a no-returns policy. Make sure you know and accept the vendor's return policy before you place the order. If you don't like the policy, then don't buy from that vendor.

When placing an order with a new-to-you vendor:

  • Be very careful to provide all appropriate detail regarding size, color, etc. If you guess or provide the incorrect information, don't expect the vendor to absorb the cost for your mistake. Accept responsibility for your own mistakes — instead of returning the item, try to sell it to another dancer.
  • Research what your credit card company's policies are with respect to insuring you against failed transactions. Not all are alike. Use a card that offers strong protections to pay for the purchase.
  • Buy only from reputable vendors who have been in business long enough to have a currently favorable reputation. If you don't know anything firsthand about a given vendor, ask your friends whether they do, or post a question on one of the Internet social networks or forums.
  • Check out the vendor's record of complaints with the Better Business Bureau before you buy.
  • Check out the vendor's credit rating with an organization such as Dun & Bradstreet. If the vendor has a poor credit rating, that means she doesn't pay her suppliers. If the vendor doesn't pay her suppliers, how can you be certain she will treat you, as a customer, honestly?
  • Ask about the merchandise and business credentials. If the vendor offers you a deal that seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Never ever give anyone money if they tell you "I can get this for you wholesale from Egypt, India, China, Morocco, etc. in a few weeks but you have to pay up front in cash first..." unless you know other people who have had favorable experiences with them in the past.

Shira

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

  • If buying through a web site that shows consumer feedback about the vendor such as Amazon or eBay, check the feedback before you place your order.
  • Take extra care to research the credentials of a vendor located in another country, since it will be more difficult to seek legal recourse if problems arise.
  • Never ever give an unfamiliar vendor cash as a deposit for special order items, and be very careful if you give them a check for a deposit. Put the deposit on a credit card because then, if you don't receive your merchandise as promised, you can recover your money from the credit card company. Insist on a receipt for your deposit.
  • If you are placing a deposit on an item that will be custom-made for you, be certain the vendor has every detail accurately recorded in writing regarding what you want. Don't guess at your size — use a tape measure. Don't guess at what color you want - give the vendor a color swatch that shows precisely what you want. One common source of vendor/client conflict arises when a reputable vendor goes to the effort of making something special to your specifications, and then you reject it. Avoid this conflict by ensuring up-front that everything is correctly, clearly specified on the description the vendor writes down. Make sure you are comfortable with the vendor's return policy before you hand over the deposit — some vendors do not accept returns on custom orders because it's hard to sell things made for you to someone else.
  • If you use an online payment service such as PayPal for your purchase, do not use the option to treat this as a personal "gift" even if the vendor asks you to. Insist on paying versus the "business" option. This will ensure you have recourse through the payment service to file a dispute if problems arise with the transaction.

Shira

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.

When a vendor hands you a receipt, look it over to make sure it accurately reflects your purchase. Keep:

  • All receipts until you are certain the merchandise is what you expected it to be. If you must return the item or demand your deposit back when the merchandise doesn't arrive, your receipt is your legal proof that you indeed paid money to this vendor.
  • All cancelled checks or credit card receipts related to a transaction that you are contesting — you'll need those and the sales receipt if you seek legal recourse.
  • All correspondence documenting questions/answers you and the vendor may have exchanged.
  • A screen capture of the original web page advertising the merchandise, including photos, description, size chart, promised shipping time frames, shipping prices, etc.
  • A record of how to contact the vendor (telephone number, postal address, email address, web site) in case you need it to ask questions about your order.

 

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What to Do if There Is a Problem

Remember that the vast majority of belly dance vendors are ethical, and deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect. They do have a responsibility to tell you promptly if your merchandise will be delayed, or if they can't find the color you want, but try to be reasonable in the demands you make. Remember, these are small businesses run by individuals. Many don't have any employees at all. For example, if you learn through the grapevine that the vendor's mother died the day after you placed your order, please try to be kind and understanding if your order is delayed a couple of extra weeks while she deals with it.

Despite your cautions, you may still find yourself in a situation where you believe the vendor has cheated you. You may have ordered merchandise that never came, received defective merchandise, or received merchandise that is quite different from what you ordered. The first thing you need to do is make reasonable attempts to contact the vendor and tell them about the problem. Give them a chance to fix it. If they shipped you what you asked for and you've simply decided you don't like it, you might not have reasonable legal grounds to pursue recourse because contract law does allow vendors to set terms & conditions, and buyers need to make their own decision of whether they can live with that vendor's conditions.

But let's say you've done that, you haven't received your merchandise (or you were shipped merchandise that was different from what you ordered), and the vendor isn't even bothering to return your phone calls. What to do next?

  • If the U.S. Postal Service was involved in conducting the transaction (that is, if you received a catalog from the vendor in the mail, or you sent your payment through the mail), then you may be able to obtain their assistance under the mail fraud laws. Contact your local post office for information.
  • File a claim with small claims court to get your money back.
  • Report the fraudulent vendor to the police in their local city. Provide copies of all receipts and documentation as proof.
  • In the U.S., report the vendor to the agency in their state government that administers business licenses. Ask that their business license be revoked due to fraudulent business practices.
  • If you paid for your purchase with a credit card, contest the charge on your credit card bill. Write to your credit card issuer, detailing precisely how you were cheated, and tell them you refuse to pay for that charge. The credit card company will follow up on your behalf with the vendor.
  • If you paid for your purchase via PayPal or another payment service, use that service's dispute process to seek satisfaction.
  • If you are in the United States, send a letter to the Attorney General of your state, and also to the state in which the vendor does business (if different from yours), detailing exactly how you were cheated. If you know anyone else who was cheated by the same vendor, urge them to do the same. If the attorney general receives enough complaints about someone, they will investigate.

Shira

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.

  • If you responded to an advertisement in a magazine, write a letter to that magazine and send a copy to the offending vendor in which you describe exactly how you were cheated and request their assistance in pressuring the vendor to make good on your transaction. Tell the magazine how disappointed you were that someone you believed to be reputable (the magazine) promoted a vendor who cheats their subscribers. Urge them to terminate their advertising contract with that vendor at once. If you know anyone else who was cheated by the same vendor, urge them to do the same.
  • If you encountered this vendor at a belly dancing event, write a letter to the event organizer and send a copy to the offending vendor. Describe exactly how you were cheated and request the event organizer's assistance in pressuring the vendor to make good on your transaction. Describe how disappointed you were that an event you believed to be reputable provided space to a vendor who cheats their attendees. Urge them to bar that vendor from all future appearances at their events. If you know anyone else who was cheated by the same vendor, urge them to do the same. The event organizer is not legally obligated to help you get satisfaction, but may be willing to do so in order to keep your goodwill with respect to her event.
  • Send a letter of complaint to the Better Business Bureau about the vendor who cheated you. If you know anyone else who was cheated by the same vendor, urge them to do the same. It probably won't help you get your money back, but it will warn other people about the risks of doing business with this vendor.

Shira

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

  • Tell everyone you know that you have been cheated by this vendor. Word of mouth can be powerful.
  • Send letters to all sponsors of belly dance events that you regularly attend alerting them to how this vendor has cheated you and urging them to decline any applications this vendor may make to appear at their future events. Tell them that you're certain they wouldn't want attendees at their future events to be cheated by this vendor the way you were.

 

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Acknowledgements

I got the idea for this article from Lucy Smith, owner of Scheherezade Imports in Richmond, Virginia, who posted most of the tips for how to avoid being cheated an Internet discussion group. With her permission, I included her advice in this article, and then added to it from my own business experience. Scheherezade Imports is a reputable business which has been delighting belly dancers with its merchandise for many years.

 

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