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Every week, join Sydney Waters as she helps you navigate life as a smart consumer. You'll cover everything in avoiding the latest scams, including phishing emails, medical equipment fraud, understanding layaway, hiring a reputable tax preparer, and even digital spring cleaning. Add to your toolbox and flip through your Consumer Handbook Thursdays during NPR’s Morning Edition at 6:42 a.m. and 8:42 a.m., only on KRCU.

Consumer Handbook: Tips for Buying a Wedding or Special Occasion Dress

Cropped shot of wedding dresses hanging on a railing in a bridal shop
Moyo Studio/Getty Images
Cropped shot of wedding dresses hanging on a railing in a bridal shop

Shopping for the perfect dress is crucial to a wedding or prom. But like many purchases with a big price tag – and high stakes – a lot can go wrong. Buying a wedding dress or prom dress can come with unexpected expenses, delayed orders, surprise policies, and unwanted stress before a big event.

Follow this advice to ensure that dress shopping goes smoothly:

  • Start shopping early: Experts recommend buying a wedding dress six to nine months before the big day.  You don't need as much time for prom or another special occasion, but experts recommend starting a few months ahead. Delivery and alterations can take time, and spring is a busy season for seamstresses. The more time you have, the more you can compare shops and the less rushed and stressed you'd feel.
  • Be clear about your budget: Be upfront so your salesperson shows you dresses in your price range. You don't want to fall in love with a dress only to find its way over your budget.
  • Factor in alterations: Dress alterations can be costly, so double-check policies in advance. Some dress shops offer alterations for a flat fee or cap expenses at a certain amount.
  • Don't pay 100% upfront when buying a wedding dress: Most salons ask for a deposit of about 50% of the dress price for expensive gowns. You should not be pressured into paying the entire cost of a wedding dress upfront. This will generally be less of an issue, depending on where you find a prom dress.
  • Check the cancellation policy: Always check a store's policy for your specific order. Each contract is different, and custom orders may have a strict cancellation policy.
  • Be clear about your schedule: Brides have complained to BBB that their dresses arrived too late for alterations. Be very clear about schedules and leave extra time to resolve any issues.
  • Take your dress home: Promptly pick up your dress after your alterations are finished. You can't control what happens at the store where you found a prom dress or wedding dress - it might even go out of business - so the safest place for your dress is at your home (or the place you will be dressing on the big day).
  • Want to rent? Do your homework: Renting a dress is an increasingly popular option for proms and other special events. Be sure to start early because popular styles and sizes will sell out.

What to look for when buying a gown online:
Some online sellers offer gowns that look like designer dresses for a fraction of the price. Buyers expect these dresses to be low-cost replicas, but BBB often hears that the dresses that arrive need to be more fitting and constructed from better-quality materials. If you’ve decided to buy a wedding dress or prom dress online, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Beware of counterfeit gowns: Authorized retailers are the only stores allowed to sell designer gowns. Anyone else claiming to carry them is likely selling counterfeits. Many dress designers do not sell their gowns online at all.
  • Shopping for a deal? Be realistic: As much as a budget-conscious bride or party-goer may want to find a $5,000 dress for $350, it will probably not happen. Many designers don't allow their dresses to be discounted below a certain margin. An in-person sample sale, not online, maybe a bride's best bet for finding a discounted gown.
  • Double check delivery promises: It's vital that your dress arrives on time, so be sure the seller clearly states its typical delivery times.
  • Understand the return policy: Review the guarantee, return, and refund policies before purchasing. Know if there is a way to return your dress (and how much it will cost) if you are not happy with it. Make sure there's a way to contact the company where you find the prom dress or wedding dress in case of problems. A website without contact information is a big red flag when shopping online.
  • Be wary of overseas sellers: Buying wedding dresses or prom dresses from an international seller may seem like a good deal. However, U.S. and Canadian laws and consumer protections will be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.
  • Read BBB tips for shopping online: Although a wedding or prom dress may be an extra special purchase, much of the general advice for shopping online applies here, too.
Sydney Waters is the new Regional Director of Better Business Bureau in Cape Girardeau and responsible for outreach efforts in Southern Illinois and Eastern and Southwest Missouri.