Try to Avoid the Unkindest Cut of All

Davis is a free-lance writer living in Monarch Beach, Calif

Even when a merchant stays within the letter of a country's consumer laws, inexperienced shoppers can find themselves spending a lot of money overseas on clothing they don't want or can't wear.

My mother and I found the purchase of tailor-made apparel in a foreign country to be particularly fraught with hazards.

As two normally wise shoppers, we still find it hard to believe that while traveling in Singapore we parted with more than $2,000 for dresses, pants and skirts, most of which were not fashioned in the styles we requested.

From the moment we entered the small shop with its bolts of cloth and four-foot-square combination dressing room and storage closet, we were in something of a hypnotic trance.

Our first mistake was in telling our cab driver that we wanted to go to a particular tailor. We did arrive at the requested shopping center, but our driver deposited us at a different tailor, one who probably rewarded him for referrals. A charming representative met us at the curb and ushered us into Mo's Tailoring.

Our second mistake was in not helping each other decide on purchases. I began by helping my mother with fabric selection, but with practiced skill the shopkeepers divided and conquered. Before long I was picking out wool for pants while mother was selecting silks for dresses, neither of us aware of the sums of money the other was agreeing to spend.

If I had stayed with my original plan of two wool skirts, I would have come away satisfied. But when Mo offered pants in the same fabric at a bargain price, because there was "just enough at the end of the bolt," I fell for it.

Because I didn't know the price of the fabric versus the labor costs, I had no idea what I was paying for. Unfortunately, fast talk on Mo's part successfully came between me and logical thought.

My mother was in even further over her head. She ended up with two suits, two blouses and three dresses, none of which fit. As mother described the styling she needed to make up for the changes in one's figure that accompany more than 70 years of good living, the seamstress assured her that there was "no problem."

We were to learn later that this phrase was used a great deal but did not necessarily reflect reality.

Our third mistake was in not making sure that there was time to try on the clothes before making final payment. The garments were not delivered to the hotel until five minutes before we had to grab a cab for the airport. We wondered if this was a coincidence or the usual way.

Did we have any legal recourse? We had paid by credit card and could defer payment pending an investigation, but Mo had done nothing illegal.

What I did do was to write a courteous but firm letter to the store, expressing our great disappointment. To his credit, Mo did send five pieces of fabric for us to have tailored here at home.

But by that time we never wanted to see the fabric again.

Here are nine rules to shop by:

1. Before shopping, decide exactly what you want and how much you are willing to pay. Price the items, including labor costs, before you leave home.

2. If ordering tailor-made clothing, take along a picture or sketch of the style you want. Study the sketch the tailor makes to see that it is the same. Select simple styles.

3. Shop with a friend and concentrate on selecting one item at a time.

4. Ask for a price breakdown, including the cost of the fabric and the labor.

5. Get the charges in writing. Compute the value in American dollars so you can easily compare the price with what you would pay at home.

6. Before giving your final OK, leave the shop and discuss the plan over a cup of tea. Don't allow any "sales line" to deter you from this step.

7. Be sure that you have time to go back for two fittings, and make the final payment only when you are satisfied.

8. Remember that merchants have many contacts with whom they share profits. Be wary of anyone who appears to be doing you a great favor.

9. Do not be intimidated by the unfamiliar culture and language. Shop more carefully than you do at home. The merchants probably are not counting on your repeat business.

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