I had what turned out to be the most interesting retail experience of my career when I went shopping a few weeks ago for my own wedding dress.
As the owner of a designer boutique, it would be fair to say that when I hit the shops myself I am perhaps overly critical of the retail experience offered elsewhere. But I had, somewhat naively, presumed that the experience of shopping for a wedding dress would not be too far removed from buying a designer evening gown from my own store. How wrong I was. I discovered that the bridal market is a completely different ball game.
My first stop was a major department store. When I was asked when my big day was (in nine weeks), I thought I would have to scrape the sales consultant off the floor. This should not have been a surprise because it had been discussed when I booked the consultation. I was told that I would be allowed to try the dresses on (!), and that if there was anything I liked they would see what they could do.
My wedding dress experience had not started well. The samples that I tried on were shabby - in some cases filthy. These dresses, by the way, retailed at a starting point of £3,000.
My second stop was a bridal store in a very smart street in the West End. I was given a book to look through so I could decide which dresses I wanted to try on. I was then allowed to try on one gown at a time. In between gowns I was left to sit in just my underwear in the changing room, waiting rather too long for the next gown to appear. There were six other brides in the store, with three of us sharing a podium in front of the mirror.
Finally, I tried a boutique bridal store. This was by far the most pleasant. I was, however, surprised to be quoted a 20% additional charge to get my dress rushed through. Surely you can either supply a dress in time or not? When I found a dress I did like, I was also surprised that they were happy to let me leave the shop with it (it didn't fit) and sort out the alterations myself. Charming, I'm sure.
There were some glimmers of retail excellence in this tale of disaster. In one store I was offered an array of gorgeous Jimmy Choo shoes to try on with the gowns. In another I was looked after by a wonderful mature sales consultant who was gentle but persuasive, and put the other twentysomething consultants to shame.
However, when I did eventually make my all-important purchase I was asked to sign a two-page document of terms and conditions. Basically, these stores cover themselves from all angles - a no cancellation policy, extra charges for alterations, a disclaimer about colour variations and absolutely no guarantee of the dress arriving on time.
What would happen if I tried to apply such terms and conditions to the sale of an evening gown, I wonder? Perhaps these stores bank on the dress being a one-off purchase, which of course I hope it will be for me.
- Sarah Davidson is the owner of designer womenswear retailer Jane Davidson in Edinburgh.