How to buy online (a guide for those of us who would sneer at a guide to buying online)

My good friend Ruth had one of those experiences that can make you cry or make you stronger. I suspect this one did both. It also made her realise that others could learn from her experience, so I agreed to host her guide on my blog (as she doesn't have a blog)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

How to buy online (a guide for those of us who would sneer at a guide to buying online)
By Ruth (off of famous singing duo Moss&Jones) 

I’ve been buying stuff online since the 90s, when I had to go into a little internet cafĂ© on North John Street in Liverpool to get online. If someone had offered me advice on how to buy online a few weeks ago, I’ll be honest; I’d have laughed! However, I think those of us who were early adopters of online shopping have become complacent; we barely think before we click. This isn’t about card fraud or identity theft (although those things do happen) but about what to do when what you’re buying is really important, or you need it for a deadline, or it is hand-made.
Or all three of those things, like, say, a wedding dress.

I was let down at the last minute by a dressmaker of very reasonably priced bespoke mediaeval style dresses on eBay. I bought from eBay in the first place because, well, did I mention it was reasonably priced (under £200, which admittedly is still really dear, but not compared to most bespoke wedding dresses) and mediaeval style? I would have looked like the Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shallot, in the boat. (Except not going to my doom, obviously.) The dressmaker had excellent feedback; nearly all five stars, so I felt utterly comfortable buying from her. I’d left it a bit late to buy so I contacted her to check she could do it; she promised in a message that I’d have it on time.

Five weeks later, just days before the wedding,  after trying frantically to contact her for about a week (as my dress hadn’t arrived), I ended up having to make a claim for my money back through PayPal, and looking for an alternative dress, last minute, through tears.
Now, much as the temptation to name and shame (or train pigeons to go to her house and poo down her chimney) is overwhelming, I want to do something more constructive that might help other people. I don’t want anyone else to go through this, so I’ve written a little ten point guide to buying (or selling) a wedding dress (or other important/hand-made/deadline-required item) online.

1.    Buy as early as you can. In the dressmaker’s weirdly passive-aggressive missive to me after it all went sour she tried to blame me for leaving it too late. One might suggest that she was at fault for promising she could still do it to such a tight deadline in the first place (weeks, not days, by the way) of course, but I suspect she saw pound signs and promised more than she could deliver.
2.    Speak to them on the telephone before buying. I know, making ‘phone calls these days is a bit passĂ©, but down the line you’ll want to be able to get in touch with the seller immediately, rather than having to wait for replies to messages that may not come. Telephone their listed number before buying. If it doesn’t work, or they don’t respond to messages when you’re thinking of buying, think how much less motivated they might be to answer a call once they actually have your money! Find out how much other work they have on. How long do they usually take? Set some parameters too; when do they think they’ll be able to send? Is it okay to “nag” them to ask for information? How often? Once a week? Will they tell you if there are problems (e.g. with their own supplier)? Be polite, obviously, but do remember this is a business transaction, and a good seller will respect this and not be offended by you asking them questions.
3.    In addition to telephone calls, however, do get everything in writing. The dressmaker in question wanted me to use Etsy to contact her (despite the fact I’d bought through eBay). I did as she asked, but sent copies of Etsy messages to her eBay account, too, and this was useful when I came to get my money back.
4.    Contrary to what I said about ‘phone calls with the seller, please bear in mind that if you buy through eBay and need to speak to a representative there, their “live chat” service is much quicker than waiting for an hour to get through on the telephone. I’m not sure with other online stores, mind you.
5.    Use PayPal! I hadn’t realised this, but PayPal’s buyer protection is really good at covering you in the event something goes wrong. I got my money back immediately with little hassle. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have had the dress, but still, at least I got my money back.
6.    Have a backup plan. In the worst case scenario, what are you going to do? Is there another shop that sells similar items? What’s the latest you can leave it before ordering from them if you original item doesn’t come? Make sure that this is the deadline for your preferred supplier (and make sure they’re aware of this), so that if they cannot fulfil your order in time, you can still get your backup.
7.    Consider buying from an online shop whose physical presence is still relatively local. That way if it does get to near the deadline, a same-day courier might not be too horrifically expensive, or if you have a nice friend with a car, they could even offer to collect.

8.    Honesty. If you can’t fulfil the order, as soon as you know, tell the buyer. Never take on a project you think there’s even a small chance you can’t finish.  Yes, that does mean you might make a little less in the short term, but in the long term, the damage to your reputation from taking on orders you can’t complete could ruin your business. If you can’t fulfil an order, why not have a list of similar sellers who might be able to? You never know, if you build up a good rapport you might end up sending each other business.
9.    Communication, communication, communication. Keep in touch with your buyer at regular intervals to let them know where you’re up to. If there are any problems, let them know immediately and give them a range of options. When you’ve sent the item, tell them. Understand that if it’s something really important to them, they might be a bit stressed, and some of their communication might appear a little short (buyers, see 3., do try to be polite). Try not to take it personally, unless they are actually downright rude.
10.    If it all really does go utterly pear shaped, and they leave negative feedback, don’t then respond with a nasty reply. It makes you look REALLY bad and they’ll only report you to eBay anyway to get the comment removed. It’ll say, “comment removed by eBay” underneath. How do you think THAT will make you look?

I am very lucky, in that I now have an alternative dress; it’s not quite as amazing as my original, but it’s pretty, fun, and I’m the bloody bride, so anyone who says any different will get in trouble! The wedding’s this Sunday, and it’ll be magic. Besides, I might not have my dream dress… but I have my dream spouse.


  1. Thank you for letting me use your blog to rant! xx

  2. Anonymous11/9/14

    All very useful tips, thank you! I'm terrible for clicking buy without even checking a sellers feedback so it's useful to be reminded of ways I can protect myself. Congratulations on the upcoming wedding Ruth!

  3. Excellent advice, thank you. I prefer shops to online as hate the thought of being let down or having trouble if there's a problem.


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