Paying for Sneaky Shopping

 A daily dose of NPR usually quells my homesickness, I used to listen regularly back home.  Thank you, streaming internet.  Yesterday, Morning Edition ran a story about Australian retailers attempting to cope with the massive numbers of Australians buying clothes, books, and other consumer goods online.  In retaliation, an Australian sports outfitter has started charging a “fitting fee,” to the tune of  $50 to fit a pair of ski boots, reports a local paper, The Australian

Let me tell you a story.  Remember I’m a transplanted American in Australia, speaking primarily to other Americans, or at least non-Australian English speakers.  I’m relating my own personal experiences which may not be the same as others.  If your experience is different, I invite you to comment freely.

Austin, Texas- a counter-culture shopper’s dream

I moved to Australia right out of college.  I had college kid clothes.  I got married.  I got pregnant.  I faced finding a temporary job if I could.  Several months pregnant, I started looking for “work” clothes, suitable for temping in an office in my condition.  This would have been a daunting task if I were still in Austin or Houston which were my shopping “home turfs.”  By Home Turf I mean I would know which store to go to and how much I could reasonably be expected to pay.   This time I found myself on the other side of the world.

I searched.  Did I mention the sizing difference here?  Without pregnancy, I went from a size 2-4 to a size 8-10 overnight, and I was not happy about the difference.

And searched. 

And searched for decent clothing but usually came home in tears of frustration.   I gave up, didn’t find a job, and had a baby.  Four months after she was born, I started working in my current job.  Everyone dresses fairly professionally, though creativity in dress is appreciated.  Up to that point, most of my sewing experience came from theatre and special occasion sewing- I never thought to make my own clothes.  I combed the malls looking for passable work clothes and turned up very little.

I would walk into a store that looked promising based on its window displays.  Immediately someone appeared at my elbow, accosting me.  I know they thought they were showing good customer service, but I always felt a little upset and had to fight myself not to exit the store immediately.  I can’t get used to being accosted every time I enter a store here, it happened just today and I left immediately because I found it so revolting.  It’s a cultural difference, but one I can’t seem to get past.  It’s like the person is so nice and talks to you, you feel like you have to buy something.

I’d walk into a store that looked like it might have ok work clothes.  Once I got rid of the sales person, I’d spend some time looking at colors and cuts.  Even back home in the U.S., I despaired of finding clothes that I liked so I never went out expecting much and just bought what I could.  Worse, as I looked for work clothes I recognized trends from when I was in highschool dished up as the latest thing.  On top of that, I couldn’t seem to find good quality fabrics.  I’d rub shirts between my fingers and put the shirt back on the rack in disgust.

Eventually, I gave in.  I needed clothes, any clothes, desperately and vowed to take whatever I could get.  I remember buying a few knit tops from a place called Katie’s, another called Country Road and from Myer, which is comparable to Macy’s.  I trusted Myer.  The store smells like Macy’s and looks like Macy’s.  Mom shops at Macy’s- so Myer felt a little familiar.  I paid about $40 each for tops I knew I could buy back home for $15-$20 and sucked it up.  After all, I’m not in Texas anymore, right?  I wasn’t shopping sales or looking for bargains, but still.

Those shirts got two or three good wearings.  I remember so well because they propelled me to make my own clothes.  Then they started pilling in the wash, and absorbing every funky odor imaginable.  I couldn’t believe it.  $40 for a few wears?  Really?!!

That’s what it’s like to shop here, Americans.  I thank Australian clothes retailers for pushing me into seriously sewing for myself.  It was a weird transition period for me stylistically- I’d wear shirts I’d now consider wadders mixed with smelly pilly overpriced things for a while, but thankfully no one seems to hold that against me now.

With that experience behind me, I can completely understand why Australians would buy overseas.  I understand and applaud it.  If you can get something vastly cheaper and of better quality, why wouldn’t you buy it where you could get it?

A few months ago, the Aussie dollar reached parity with the American dollar.   Australians are turning to the internet for purchases.  The Australian dollar goes further in the U.S. for better quality than it does here.  The retailing establishment has been so devastated by this that they lobbied the government to impose a tax on goods bought that way.  The government said no dice, it’s a free market economy.

The other thing I learned- stiff Aussie pricing has to do with taxes and the high cost of labor.  When I worked at The Gap in high school, they paid me around $6/hr.  “Minimum” wage here is usually at least twice that, more so for retail staff.  It has to do with cost of living.

Ski Boot

So what about the thousands of Aussies who make their living in retail?  What about the delightful independent businesses staffed by insanely helpful and knowledgeable staff?  Is it ok to have them fit you for ski boots in a process that could take up to an hour, only to waltz out with the knowledge of size and brand so you can go buy the same ski boot online for half the price?  No, it’s not ok.  That’s rude.  It’s stealing the time of the people staffed to help fit your boots.  $50 for an hour and a half or two hours of work is reasonable here.

Is it ok to charge for time spent fitting?  Is this the eventual future of retail everywhere?  I go sneaky shopping to try on styles I find interesting, or to check out construction techniques or fabrics.  Who doesn’t?  I try on things I know I’ll never buy in order to increase my own knowledge.  Is that wrong?  Where’s the line?  How will retail change with the internet?  Borders is bankrupt, thanks at least in part to Amazon.

Should a shop charge for customer service?  How much should they charge?  What will the stores of the future look like?  Will they be tiny places with a demonstration model in each size, then you place an order which will be sent to you at home?  Perhaps so, and the more I think about it, the more it seems an efficient way to run retail rather than paying the rent and staff to maintain huge spaces full of stock.  If you can’t beat them (the internet), then join them, right?

As always, I appreciate opinions.

(I put together some Moderne sleeves this evening, my goodness they are interesting…)


  1. Interesting discussion. My personal opinion is that if you are going to work hard for your money (most of us do), then you should be free to spend it where you choose. I don't have any experience shopping for Australian clothes, but my father-in-law worked many years for GM and that side of the family is big on American cars. The in-laws were a bit perturbed by the fact that we rented a foreign car while on vacation! I don't feel that consumers should feel obligated to buy only things made in their country. It's not the consumer's fault if there are better things out there! (Particularly if there is political drama behind the price hike.)I do, however, think it's ok for a store to charge for a service like ski boot fitting. (Not that I know anything about ski boots but from your description of the process it seems like quite a process.)Anyways, that's my two cents.

  2. Also, I'm fairly certain that the last Australian clothing factories shut down recently and Bonds (a respected Australian underwear and basics line) outsourced its labor to somewhere in southeast asia.

  3. The line, IMO, is where you're genuinely taking up time that the store could offer to other people. Like the ski-boots thing. When I bought my kids' shoes and needed fitting, I felt morally obligated to BUY the shoes at the store that fit them, even though a different store had much cheaper prices – if I had them fit, I would buy. However, even "normal" unsneaky shoppers often browse through stores and walk out again, or try on clothes that don't fit and hang them back up and leave. I think the line there would be not dragging out the camera and snapping pix in the dressing room so you could copy the style exactly. I have been pleasantly surprised lately by finding some things in my local shops that are less expensive than I am able to find them on the internet. Also, I'll pay for quality and craftsmanship. So, things may be turning around a bit.The market is ever-changing.

  4. Paying $40.00 for shirts that only stood up to a few wearings would bother me, and I have had similar experiences in the States. Higher end department stores have also lowered their quality here and folks seem to accept it. When things inflate way past their real worth, if it happens over a long period of time, it creates a bubble, like what has happed with American real estate. Do you think this is some kind of retail bubble that is about to pop?

  5. Definitely a bubble. Or something. It looks to me like something must change dramatically. (I'm up late with a sick little girl, so am blog cruising because my fingers are too stupid to sew)

  6. If I am shopping and find something I like at a price that is reasonable, I will buy it even if I may be able to get it online for cheaper. I like to support retailers if they are providing what I need, and it is much easier to know if you really want a piece of clothing if you can try it on before you buy it. You are paying for that convenience. HOWEVER, more often than not I feel disappointed and even insulted by the poor selection and awful service at most stores these days and walk out without buying anything. I am at the upper edge of misses and lower edge of plus, so often fall between the cracks of sizing. Oh, the hours I have wasted trying to find clothes in our local Macy's that don't look horrible on me. I have a dream of sewing all my own clothes, but I simply don't have time to do it. Maybe someday.

  7. I can see the logic in charging for a complicated fitting process, such as ski boots. There are some places here in the States where you can be professionally measured for a suit for a reasonable fee. If you buy a suit at that particular shop, the fee is waived. That seems fair to me, as those places are not among the cheaper stores. I have shopped at a place that was similar to your last example. Small shop, two employee/owners. If you saw something you liked that wasn't in your size (or you wanted a different color), they'd measure you up, take the order and you'd come back to pick up your garment in about a week. It was a fair trade shop as well, which purchased most of its fabric from small village enterprises in third-world countries. If I'd been wealthy, I'd have bought all my clothes there. (it was in a small village north of Alkmaar, Netherlands) On the other hand, I love being able to shop online, especially for known fabrics from familiar shops.

  8. I agree with the last commenter, Kathy. It seems reasonable to me to charge a reasonable fee for something that requires intricate fitting, such as a ski boot. I agree with her statement that if you buy the item at the shop then the fee would be waived. Personally, I kind of the like the idea of the demonstration model for a clothing store. Though, I think that this would work best for mid to high end retailers. If I knew I had to go to the store, be fitted, and then wait for my item to arrive I would definitely think twice about what I was buying and not make an impulse purchase. When I walk into a store and I really don't plan on buying anything that day, I usually just politely tell the associate that I'm just browsing. If I do plan on purchasing something though I do sometimes allow them to follow me around, especially if I am alone, so that I can send them to fetch me a different size from the dressing room if I need it, though I would never have them do that if I didn't intend on purchasing something. By the way, I can't wait to see your finished dress. :]

  9. I remember doing a lot of window shopping when I was in Australia for a semester during college (~10 years ago) and loving the stuff from Country Road, but not being able to afford it. Now I'd probably go for it, but then I was mostly buying from Sportgirl and op shops. I do remember being struck by the lack of variety in the main shopping areas (I was in Canberra – not Sydney, but not a tiny town either.)I'm waiting for the retail bubble here in the States to pop – it's only supported by outsourcing production to SE Asia, (and low costs for transportation which as petroleum gets spendy are vanishing) and, as you point out, low wages for retail workers. When you are able to buy a perfectly new item on clearance for less than the same item would be priced at the thrift store, it's clear that the larger model is inefficient and something will give sooner or later.

  10. Another angle on clothing in Australia, is the take over of the fabric retail market by Spotlight. I'm finding now, that it costs as much to buy decent fabric, thread, buttons and zips, as it does to buy the finished item. Not to mention the large selection of crap fabric I have to trawl through to find something I like. I live in regional NSW, so have Spotties, and 2 quilt shops. The prices on the cottons in the quilt shops are around $25 a metre. I'm not big, but $50-75 a garment, that I have to find time to make is difficult. Not to mention that summer here lasts 2-3 months, and then its back into winter. We have very limited access to mid-high end retailers, and I will only buy from the cheapies at sales because items are of a poor quality. To clothe 2 adults and 2 kids on a single income, I do have to look at the internet and plan our wardrobe carefully. The cost of living is high in Australia, not just for clothes. Like an earlier poster said, its a free market, and I can spend my limited dollars where I please.

  11. I think if shops are finding people are using their 'real life' stores as places to sample/fit – free – and then leaving to buy online, then yes, they should be charging for the service they are providing. The customers would not be able to buy confidently online without that service. Of course if they bought at the shop, the fee should be refundable (and perhaps also if the shop was unable to actually provide the right fit).I am finding the online/real shop thing a conundrum lately because yes, the Aussie dollar is so good right now. Buying fabric online from the USA is very good value and I have made some purchases – but primarily when I have been unable to find the same fabric in Australia. I buy all my notions locally from the shop around the corner; although they don't have much fabric I like, they are lovely, have a playroom that my son loves, and I would be devastated if they went out of business so I like to support them. There are a couple of Australian online fabric stores that are my first point-of-call for most of my fabric buys. They're not cheap but shipping is fast and free.As for shopping RTW, I've almost forgotten what that feels like! My only recent experiences are for shoes. Maybe our shop assistants are less aggressive here in Adelaide though? I know the 'type' you mean but they're not the norm.It's a complicated issue, obviously. I prefer to shop local bricks-and-mortar when I can, and pay a little more for the convenience if I have to. Because if I don't, and those shops disappear, I'd have no right to complain.

  12. I have a hard time justifying paying an arm and a leg to ship from just south of the border into Canada, plus the dollar difference, PLUS Customs usually charging even more to manhandle my purchases, so I rarely order online. I'm only really willing to if it's a Canadian company that ships from Canada, and that's rare in my experience. I have yet to find any Canadian online fabric stores (although if anyone knows, please let me know!), but I'd probably consider it if there were, just because of the lack of choice at my one nearby fabric store. But in general, I try as much as possible to support local shops.That could have something to do with my inherent distrust of giving anyone my financial information online, though. And my technophobia and Grumpy Old Man tendencies. :)I think if there's not the desired product available in shops (at reasonable prices and quality – such as the example you gave us), then I don't blame people for shopping online. But I agree with others about not using the resources at shops and then walking out to buy online when they could've been helping a paying customer. Local businesses should be supported as much as possible, but they can't get their panties in a twist if quality desired products aren't available.Okay, I'm done babbling. Good post!

  13. I'm in more or less the same place as Heather—I'm mistrustful of cross-border shipping (having had some parcels arrive with insane brokerage fees) and haven't found any particularly good Canadian mail-order sources for fabric (at least, fabric that I need) that are any cheaper than what's available locally. I'm far too wary of fit to order shoes or clothing online, either. We do order other things we can't find locally—custom motorcycle bits, rare DVDs, a few books, to name a few. If I'm buying independent patterns I tend to order directly from the company, as well, though if a local shop carried them I'd probably buy it there. I do make a point of ordering (regular, as opposed to specialty) books through my local Chapters, as this seems to encourage them to then go on and stock that book in the future.And yes, going to a store to try on the merchandise and then leaving and going online to order the exact same item just seems rude. But going to a store, finding nothing (whether due to sizing, quality, whatever) and then ordering online is perfectly justifiable.Wow, sorry for the book! ;)

  14. Actually we have a store like that in Australia; one where you try on a demo model and then either collect from a distribution point or organise a delivery. It's called Gorman. Lovely clothes and I think most, or all, are organic! I'm often tempted by their stuff.

  15. Its such a complicated issue that really does boil down to the cost of living here – as well as the low cost of labour overseas.Even high end Aussie designers are charging us hundreds for stuff that's made in China and no better quality than the likes of Country Road. And Country Road is meant to be on the higher end of the chain stores!What is also galling is knowing that the international chains charge so much less for the equivalent item in different countries. Take Ted Baker for example – Some years ago I went into their newly opened store in Lt Collins St to try on a gorgeous trench coat. It cost $480 (4 years ago!). I then emailed my friend in London who purchased the SAME coat from the Ted Baker online store, had it delivered to her house and then she sent it on to me here in Australia. The total cost of that transaction? $420! INCLUDING the extra money I gave my friend to pay for the shipping costs (which were only for the London to Aus leg of the trip since Ted Baker offered free shipping within the UK). So I saved $60 on an item bought all the way from on the other side of the globe and I was still buying from the one company.That $60 I saved may as well be called an Australia Tax. And who knows how much that gap has widened since the Aussie dollar has become so much stronger?Its utterly obscene how much we get taxed/ripped off here for a substandard service and below par quality. And it only highlights the hard place that small retailers are forced into – having to pay higher wages for staff, high rents for shops and also trying to compete with the relatively cheaply costed competition from the big chain stores.It is indeed a bubble that is going to pop very soon.

  16. I'm thrilled about all the thought-provoking comments left here, I don't know how to answer each person individually. It's interesting to talk about this- retail in general, and clothing in particular seems to let so many people down….I was thinking more about the small shop front with a few sizes paradigm and I have to wonder if it's just a really, really good idea. Obviously, that will mean less jobs in retail. Times change, that's the way it is. Maybe smaller shipped-to-order businesses will allow for greater creativity and better fit for those who don't sew, and perhaps create less waste.I can dream, right?

  17. I agree with the high cost of off the rack clothing here. I can buy handmade or better quality clothing online in a heartbeat and worry about fit when I receive the goods. I'm in brisbane too and it appalls me the cost and low quality of options out there. Most of my clothes I wear now are from our recent european trip and they are resistant to pilling and nice fabrics (not all synthetic)… I don't know what I'll do when they wear out!Want another student???

  18. Yes, of course. :) If you need me to send you the info, let me know, but I think you e-mailed me a few months ago. It's funny, I know many European and American immigrants here who wear their clothes from home to tatters and shop for clothes and shoes whenever they're in the motherland.

  19. I so understand the frustration of finding quality clothing in Brisbane. Quality, colour, cost,…there are so many things to complain about! Fabric in Brisbane is also very expensive, unless you manage to find some good bargain bin specials. I don't buy clothing from the US, but I do buy fabric. I also love the McVoguerick Sales – despite the astronomical shipping fees, it still works out to be around $7.50 per pattern which is much better than Spotlight's and the independent store's average sale price of $12 a pattern! As bad as Brisbane was though, Fiji is worse… Haha!I enjoy reading your blog by the way (first time commenting)Lauren

  20. Thanks, Lauren, hope to hear more from you! Spotlight does have decent fabricssometimes if you know what to look for and don't mind digging. Sometimes goodcotton slub knits, their corduroys are of good and consistent quality, and theblouse weight cottons seem to stand the test of time and wear. It's all fairlybasic though…. Hard to find exceptional fabrics…

  21. You are guilty of cutting into my sewing time here with all your though-provoking comments.I think the most I've paid for a yard of fabric is about $6. I wish I could send you a shipping crate of fabric!

  22. Hmm, I haven't tried Spotty's corduroy. That information will come in handy when I move back to Bris in winter with only summer clothes!I like Gardams in Indooroopilly and The Fabric Collection in Sumner Park for some nice-to-exceptional daywear fabrics, but buying overseas is still cheaper per metre.$6 a yard…*sigh*

  23. I live in a isolated community where everything is shipped in. By isolated I mean there are no roads going outside the community and shipping is by either air or water/marine. The local businesses have promoted "buy local" and for many things I do. Fabric is limited so I order online.Like many of you Aussies shipping can and many times is as much as the fabric. I shop mainly at places that offer reasonable shipping rates.My other alternative is waiting until I fly south for vacation time and do my shopping then. I mail fabric back so I don't have to pay for extra baggage. We ship/mail in plastic tubs using electric zip ties in holes we punch into the lid and lip of the container. The US postal service love us because the boxes are sturdy and take a beating. We also usually beat the packages home. Its like christmas when our boxes arrive.You ask where do I live, Juneau Alaska. Its worse in the small villages; less than 1,000 people, they have one store for everything.Annette

  24. I would not go into a shop and try things on with the full intention of buying from elsewhere, it seems immoral to me.Books are my current dilemma. I can buy books from the UK, sent to my doorstep, for significantly cheaper than buying local. But what is the long term cost? Loss of our quality local booksellers I suspect. (I had no problem with buying books overseas when I lived in places with no quality local booksellers though!). As for fabric choices, Spotlight is my only local 'fashion' fabric shop. I find it ok for cotton fabric and I bought some decent knits from there today. But anything 'high end' just isn't available. I sometimes like to sew with nice linen or 100% wool (and maybe one day… silk). For these I mail order from interstate or overseas (I'm in Tas and I until recently lived in the Northern Territory). It's not even the price really, I want to handle NICE fabrics.

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