Tips to help women avoid bridal nightmare

The e-mails from brides jilted by La Bella Sposa boutique have been heartbreaking.

The south Charlotte store closed suddenly last week, leaving angry women in its wake, some of whom have organized a blog ( and a Facebook page to communicate.

Those brides say their designer gowns were paid for and never received and used gowns were passed off as new. Weddings are stressful enough without added dress drama.

Sudden closures of bridal shops are common, especially this time of year, says Alan Fields, who with his wife, Denise, is the author of “Bridal Bargains,” a straight-talking consumer guide for wedding planning in its eighth edition.

“(Shop owners have a) bad month or two and the suppliers or designers stop shipping the goods,” he says. “Bridal shops work differently than any other dress shop. You put down your deposit and wait for your dress to come in. …You're left hoping they are still going to be there in three months.”

There are ways for brides to protect themselves in case something goes wrong. Fields recommends:

Always use a credit card for a deposit on the dress. You have some consumer protection and can go back to the credit card company to dispute the charge if the product isn't received. Check the limitations – most don't protect purchases across state lines, he said.

Get all details in writing. “It sounds obvious, but many dress shops don't give you a detailed receipt,” he says. You need the name of the manufacturer, the style number, the color and the size. You can go to another dealer and see if they can find your dress.

Make sure the shop is an authorized retailer. Call or check the manufacturer's Web site. “If the shop is no longer an authorized dealer, that's a big red flag,” Fields said.

Don't be afraid to walk away. A 50 percent deposit for a dress is standard, he says. Period. Any store asking for more is likely doing so for the wrong reasons. There will be other shops that carry that dress.

Never leave your dress or merchandise at the shop. “Bridal stores are not invincible,” he says. “They're not storing a dress in a vault. Don't leave it there. … Don't tempt fate.”

Cut out the middle man. Most shops outsource their gown cleaning and preservation, Fields says. Take your gown elsewhere.

Try not to get too swept up in the wedding moment. Keep your smart consumer wits about you. Document whom you spoke to, when and why. Log all phone calls. Keep all receipts.

As for La Bella Sposa, an Indian Trail couple has sued store owners Shannon and Brian Starcher seeking more than $5,200 in damages.

Court records show foreclosure papers were filed May 21 against the Starchers in Union County. Records show a tax lien against the shop this year. Court records say the U.S. Department of the Treasury was paid $1,838 last month.

“They made every mistake they could make in the book,” the couple's lawyer Rick Mitchell told the Observer recently. “They didn't have the slightest idea of how to run a business.”