Prom season starts at the end of March, which means that girls have already started hunting for the perfect dress. Area retailers want girls to be sure that the dress they want is the dress they get.
Every girl has a vision of what she wants to look like at her prom. Parents, on the other hand, have their own visions their daughters' prom dresses. The chief concern? Cost.
A designer prom gown can cost anywhere from $250 to nearly $1,000. And, for a girl whose parents have set a budget, those prices can quickly derail her prom dreams.
However, a quick Google search finds countless websites offering prom gowns well below the $250 threshold. But, here's where the dream quickly becomes a nightmare. Without disclosing it to potential customers, many of those sites are selling designer knock-offs made of cheap fabric, hastily-sewn beading and other problems that often cannot be fixed by a seamstress.
Mary Bowers and Pam Leeson of Louis Marie Bridal in Middletown said the problem really began cropping up several years ago. And, as prom season gets underway in Delaware this year, they really want girls—and their parents—to be educated about shopping for a gown.
"We see girls come in with these little grey bags and we know immediately what she's going to say," said Bowers. "She's going to tell us how she found the most beautiful dress online—the very dress she's been dying to have—but now that it's here, it's too small or the fabric is so cheap that it's not wearable."
Darren Wilson of Claire's Fashions in Wilmington said he's met girls with horror stories as well.
"We've heard of uneven hemlines, cheap fabric, loose beading, bad fittings," Wilson said. "You wouldn't believe it. It's been a real problem for everybody involved, from manufacturers to customers."
How do girls get taken in by such a scam? First, the websites have names like "dreamprom.com" or "fabulouspromgirl.com." The site administrators pull photos from the sites of designers like Sherri Hill, Jovani, Faviana or Alyce, all popular with girls for cutting-edge prom trends.
Then, the fake site says that those dresses, which typically come in a limited array of colors or sizes, can be obtained in almost any color or any size for a price that's well below the wholesale cost that boutiques are paying.
"For a teenager on a budget, I can see where it would be hard to remember that you get what you pay for," Wilson said. "If you are on a budget and you stumble on a site where you see your dream dress that you thought was previously out your price range, you can see how that girl could get herself into a disappointing situation."
"If the price is $100 or $200 cheaper than it was in the store, you are not going to get the dress you want," Bowers said. "I've seen it happen."
Both Wilson and Bowers said that designers and industry insiders are doing their best to keep the public educated. Bowers said that girls can visit the American Bridal and Prom Industry Association's website for advice about spotting these fake websites. Ads are also scattered throughout the season's prom magazines, advising girls to only buy dresses from reputable stores and authorized dealers.
"We keep a running list of the websites that we try to share with the girls," Bowers said. "The problem is that even when a site gets shut down, it seems to pop back up under another name."
For now, the best thing a girl can do is nothing short of old-fashioned research.
Each designer's website usually lists "authorized dealers." Bowers recommends not buying a dress from a store or website that's not listed with a designer. She also recommends reading a website's return policy. Check for a phone number. Run from sites that ask for "persuasive" evidence like pictures or videos and be wary of sites that bury fine print like "the possibility of a 5 percent difference in the dress received versus the picture on the website." There should be no difference.
Yet another red flag should be the options available for the dress a girl wants.
"A lot of dresses only come in one color. Some come in two or three," Bowers said. "Almost any dress you click to see on these fake sites are available in any color you can think of, though. It's another way to know it's not the actual designer dress."
Bowers and Wilson say they both of their stores do as much as they can to educate their customers and keep the situation from getting worse. Both business owners also say that the problem doesn't seem as wide-spread as in years past. But, one girl is just one girls too many when you have to see the girl face-to-face.
"I hate this. I just hate it. These sites are stealing from girls," Bowers said. "For each girl that gets one of these bad fakes, there are others who never receive their dresses. Once the money is spent, what's a girl supposed to do?"