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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Mailbox Missives:
Are You Helping or Hurting Our Vendors?

by Shira

I recently received two e-mails that called my attention to an issue that many people in the belly-dance community really don't think about: are we encouraging our vendors to continue bringing the costumes, jewelry, music, videos, and accessories we love, or are we treating them so badly that we're driving some of them out of business? Here they are:

"I'm a vendor, and it costs me a lot of time, money, and hassle when someone returns something. In the 10 years I have been doing this I can happily say I have never had a return for quality issues. Not that I have had a lot of returns, but when I do it's always because the buyer never bothered to think a little before making the purchase and didn't get the right size. It's always a size issue. I can't take any blame for this because I offer no pressure to buy whatsoever—I just answer email, and any questions in detail they might have. I give measurements on my items on the website. So it's just such a hassle, a waste of time and money when this happens, and it's frustrating, because I put so much effort into my work, but some of these buyers really don't think before they buy."

"I noticed you live in the same metropolitan area as I do. Is there a retail store anywhere in the area that I can go to for my costume shopping? I prefer to try things on before I buy, instead of mail-order, because I like to see how they look." [Sadly, I had to tell this person that the only open-to-the-public retail shop in our area recently closed because they had too much trouble with shoplifting. Now they sell only via mail-order.]

Too many people, it seems, abuse the vendors who bring us the wonderful costumes, jewelry, music, and other supplies that enable our art form to exist. Some of the people who do it probably don't even realize that's what they're doing. How about you? Do you consider the impact your own buying behavior has on the vendors you buy from?

Belly-dance vendors differ in many ways from mainstream mall merchants or mail-order companies. Our vendors tend to be small businesses, often owned an operated by a single individual or maybe an alliance of just 2 or 3 people. These people often work long, long hours—during the day, they deal with us. At night, they're on the phone with their suppliers in India and the Middle East. Their personal money is what keeps their businesses alive. Compare that to the huge mail-order companies like Land’s End, who cheerfully promise that your satisfaction is guaranteed or they'll refund your money, no questions asked. At such companies, there are armies of people who fill orders, answer questions, process returns, and calculate the taxes they owe.

About Returns
Of course you have the right to expect that the merchandise you are purchasing is adequate quality. If you purchase a video, you have the right to expect that it will actually play when you put it into your VCR. But you don't have the right to complain if you find it boring—most vendors don't refund your money for videos if you simply don't like them. If you purchase a garment, you have the right to expect that it will be the size and color you specified when you ordered it. But if you specified red when you ordered it, and then later decided you really don't want red, it's not fair to expect the vendor to accept the return. Sell it to a classmate instead.

We can't expect our belly-dance vendors to provide the same guarantees that enormous retailers can provide, because they're too small to be able to do that. When we do business with them, we need to take responsibility for buying only what we intend to keep.

When you buy something from belly-dance vendors and then return it, you create a large amount of work for these companies. Here are some of the things they have to do:

  • They need to verify exactly what price you did pay, so that they can refund you the correct amount.
  • If you paid by check, they need to determine whether your check has cleared the bank, to ensure that their payments have indeed been finalized. If you paid by credit card, they need to deal with the credit card company to refund your money, and that usually costs them some kind of fee.
  • They need to update their accounting records, to recover the sales tax they may have paid to the government for your merchandise, and ensure that their income tax records don't show income on the returned purchase.
  • They lose money on the postage and packaging materials they paid to ship the original item to you, because you'll expect your postage to be refunded as well as the price of the merchandise.
  • They need to update their inventory records with information that they have returned the item to stock, to keep track of what they have available.
  • They need to update their catalogs to indicate to other customers that the item you returned has become available to purchase again. This particularly applies to vendors who deal in tribal-style jewelry, antique clothing, and other one-of-a-kind items. If they discarded the original photograph after you bought the item, then they need to take another one, and rewrite descriptive text for it. If they pay someone to run their website catalog, it costs them something to re-list the item.

Whew! That's a lot of work, and after doing all that, the poor vendors are left showing a loss as the outcome of doing business with you. If they have to deal with too many customers just like you, they’ll be driven out of business and the entire belly-dance community will lose a resource.

There are some simple things you can do to minimize how much merchandise you need to return to vendors. When you're shopping, please try to follow these guidelines:

  • Specify the accurate size. If you're purchasing something that comes in different sizes, take measurements so you can specify the correct size. Don't guess simply because you're too lazy to spend 5 minutes with a measuring tape. Don't lie and tell her the size you wish you were just because you're too insecure to admit that you don't like the current size and shape of your body. Don't tell her the size you were 5 years ago—measure yourself to find out what size you are today. If you don't have a measuring tape, buy or borrow one.
  • Ask about the vendor's return policy. Find out what the return policy is for the item you are looking at. If the vendor says he/she doesn't accept returns for people who have simply changed their minds, then stop and think about how seriously you want this item. If you're not sure, don't buy it.
  • Keep your receipt. If you do decide to buy the item, keep the receipt until you're absolutely certain you will keep it. It's your proof that you indeed bought the item from this vendor, and it's also documentation of what price you paid for it. Don't expect the vendor to accept the return without it.
  • Compare color samples. When you attend an event with vendors, take costume items or fabric swatches with you so that you can evaluate whether the color of the item you're thinking about buying will go with the items you plan to wear it with. For mail-order items, consider sending the vendor a swatch of the color you're trying to match and ask her to tell you how close he/she thinks the match is with the merchandise. If he/she hand-makes costume items, ask whether he/she can send you a small swatch so that you can compare it against the items you would wear it with yourself. Remember that the colors displayed on websites aren't the most reliable indicator of true color.
  • Be careful when buying music. Before you buy music, make sure you know what you're buying. Ask the vendor to play excerpts for you over the phone so you can determine whether you like the song itself as well as that artist's version of it. Carry portable tape and CD players with you to dance events and ask vendors whether they have an opened copy that you can listen to before you buy.
  • Be careful when buying videos. It's harder to shop for a video. Reviews in belly dance magazines often can't be trusted because they're frequently written by friends of the artist who produced the videos, and naturally they're full of praise. Seek several opinions before you purchase the item. Several belly-dance websites post product reviews. You can also join some of the various online discussion groups out there to ask for people's opinions on the videos you are considering. Ask both about production quality (lighting, sound, focus, camera angles) and content (useful, organized, applicable to your particular needs). If no one you know has seen the video, and if very few people on the web can give you intelligent comments about it, maybe you should wait until you can learn more about it before ordering it sight unseen.

In other words, before you actually purchase an item, take responsibility for determining whether it's what you really want or not. Only you can decide whether the item is right for you, and you do have the responsibility to do some fact-finding first. Don't expect the vendor to pay for your indecisiveness and laziness.

About Shoplifting
If you have ever taken something from a belly dance vendor without paying for it, you deserve to be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. You also deserve to be thrown in jail for the maximum penalty. People who shoplift are thieves, plain and simple. They're no better than robbers who break into people's homes and steal their valuables. When you steal merchandise from a belly-dance vendor, you are stealing from an individual person who works hard to bring you the items you love, not a huge faceless corporation. You are taking money away from that individual's ability to feed his/her children, pay his/her heating bill, and save for his/her retirement. Shame on you!

If you know someone else who shoplifts, please take that person aside and explain that his/her actions are truly hurting someone. Our vendors often struggle financially, especially during times like now, when many people are unemployed and unable to spend money on fun things like belly-dance supplies.

When shoplifters drive a vendor out of business, the entire belly-dance community is harmed, because we have one less place to buy our supplies.

Other Vendor Issues
There are many other ways that people abuse vendors. Maybe they'll special-order a custom item, then decide they don't want it once it arrives, leaving the vendor stuck with trying to sell that item to someone else. They order videos, make an illegal personal copy, then return the original for a refund, making up some story that they didn't like it and therefore don't want to pay for it. Or maybe they'll damage an item when they try it on, then refuse to pay the vendor for the damage they caused. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Bad Vendors
Yes, I acknowledge that there are some bad vendors out there. Some are basically decent people who just aren't very competent—they do intend to send your merchandise, but they might take a long time to do it, send something different from what you ordered, or lose the item you returned when they send you the wrong thing, etc. Others are normally good vendors, but they have fallen on hard times such as death in the family, illness, or divorce, causing an abrupt change in their ability to provide good service. Still others truly are unethical—they send you poor-quality merchandise, make promises they don't keep, and refuse to refund your money when the merchandise has a genuine flaw, such as a scratched CD that doesn't play properly.

Fortunately, very few bad vendors exist. The vast majority of vendors that I've dealt with in over 20 years of belly dancing have sent me exactly what I ordered, kept the promises they've made, and been reliable sources for the merchandise I want. In the small number of cases where I've had a bad experience, it was usually a vendor who genuinely intended to do the right thing but who was either poorly organized or going through a temporary difficult period such as illness. I've been lucky to never have been cheated by an unethical vendor.

In Conclusion
Try to be fair, honest, and ethical in your dealings with vendors. Take responsibility for making well-informed buying decisions, and gather all appropriate facts such as product reviews, accurate measurements, or fabric swatches before you place your order. If you know of others who cheat vendors, try to pressure them to see that they are harming a hard-working individual through their actions. Remember, if we don't nurture our vendors, they'll go out of business, and the dance community will lose valuable resources. Please try to do your part to encourage and support them.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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