Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anthrofans: Where do we go from here?

It should come as no surprise to those who have read my blog for any period of time that I am a fan of the store Anthropologie. I wouldn’t presume to know the interests of all of my readers, but I know that many---and perhaps most---of my regular readers are also fans of the brand. One of the many reasons why Anthropologie is so special to me is that, unlike most other stores, it comes with a friendly online community of people to share information about availability of popular items and sizing tips for online shoppers, help you find the best price on clothes (often alerting you to when you are entitled to partial refunds due to lowered prices), and just plain gush about how pretty some of the items are.

Because of the slant of this blog, the interests of at least some of my readers, and my love of and respect for this great online Anthropologie community, I feel I should add another voice to the choir of people commenting on the unfolding scam involving Kim, formerly of the blog Anthroholic.

I’ll start with a summary of events, since I’ve noticed quite a few “WTFs” floating around in response to all of this. I’m including links to everything, since it’s all out there in disparate and should be in one place in the aggregate. I don’t mean to rehash bad feelings, but I do think the story should be told somewhere in one piece. Allow me to warn you---if you’re not interested in Anthro, you’ll want to skip this entry entirely.

The Background
Kim Baker, a blogger in Chicago, ran a very popular Anthropologie blog called “Anthroholic” (now offline). Kim’s blog title was apt; the blog focused on her love of the store Anthropologie, and often featured outfits from the brand. Kim had a large following relative to Anthropologie-centered blogs with approximately 2500 followers. She was a high-profile figure in the Anthropologie community due to her readership and affiliation with the brand; she periodically partnered with Anthro to hold events in the Chicago area.

For as long as I’d followed her blog, Kim ran a personal shopping service in which she offered to find items for customers, purchase them, and ship them for a fee. I never used this service, but many others did. It was particularly appealing to foreign readers, since many companies charge exorbitant amounts to ship abroad---Anthropologie charges $40 to ship to Canada---and some companies refuse to ship abroad at all.

Kim’s service filled a gap, and the service was utilized by both domestic and international readers. Nobody was aware that anything was wrong. Until…

”Get Off My Internets” Features an Anthropologie Blogger
Get Off My Internets, or GOMI, is a “snark blog” dedicated to making fun of various style and lifestyle bloggers for various internet crimes including disingenuity, inflated sense of self-importance, and sometimes just a perceived lack of expertise from bloggers who make a living selling sponsorships on their blog. Anthropologie blogs, being smaller on average than other fashion blogs, are usually not featured on this website.

At the end of August, GOMI stumbled upon an Anthropologie blogger named Bonnie of Small Town Fashionista, and GOMI posted an entry about her here. A week later, Bonnie found out about the GOMI post and created her own blog entry about the situation (now deleted). This blog entry led many people to the GOMI website and new people, including Anthro fans, began commenting on the GOMI entry. Eventually, it emerged in the comments that several people had been given the run-around by a well-known Anthropologie blogger who ran a personal shopping service.

As people continued to discuss the issue on GOMI, it became clear that there were multiple cases of a personal shopping customer paying for services and then never receiving the item or the shopping services they paid for, even after many months of email requests. Moreover, they all seemed to receive the same excuses---all of which seemed genuine in isolation---that Anthropologie delivered the wrong size, that the item had been damaged, that UPS lost the package, that emails were being sent and lost. The more people chimed in, the harder it became to write off the situation as a hoax.  [Edit:  Note also that someone on GOMI EA found a discussion thread on "Authentic Forum" from April 2011 discussing similar problems with Anthroholic, here [edited because the link was posted on EA first, then reposted to GOMI]

Then, GOMI posted a new entry about the controversy here. Even more people emerged in the comments who had seemingly been scammed. Another blogger, Tracy at In Pursuit of Hippyness, posted a long entry about her experience here. That night, Kim posted a vague apology on her blog explaining that she’d done something wrong, that she was sorry, and that she was trying to make it right. Most of her readers seemingly had no idea what she was talking about, and those who had something more substantial to say saw their attempted comments deleted. (Read the GOMI page about this “Anthro-pology” here)

A commenter on Effortless Anthropologie (EA), a very popular and well-respected Anthropologie blog, posted a link to GOMI in the most recent EA blog post (here). People began commenting on the link from EA, some chiming in that they too had been victims of this scheme. In response to these comments, Roxy, the EA blogmaster, posted a separate entry to allow people to discuss the issue here. At this point, the scope and nature of the enterprise was still unclear.

As comments flooded in on Roxy’s post, more and more victims of this shopping scam came to light. Some of these commenters were people who have been posting in the community for months or years, some were other bloggers---everyones’ stories aligned and were too numerous to be anything but the truth in their aggregate. Kim initially tried to defend herself on this thread, but was caught in another lie (she insisted she never had a debt problem, but at least one woman in the community had seen her speak about this issue in a different fashion forum).

Where Things Stand Right Now
Kim has shut down her blog and her twitter feed.  (Read GOMI entry about it here)  Facts are still emerging, and it’s still unclear whether this scam was malicious or just an example of a woman getting in over her head with an entrepreneurial endeavor and then turning to fraud in a panic. Some of her victims have gotten their money back through Paypal, while others are waiting for resolution. There has been talk of reporting Kim’s actions to the proper authorities, including the Illinois Attorney General and the FBI. It seems as though none of the victims---even those who have received some refunds---have been refunded the fees associated with Kim’s service or with using paypal.  [Edit:  As noted in one of the comments to this entry, at least one person who received her refund today did receive a refund of the fees as well.  Hopefully this bodes well for those who only received partial refunds.]  Jezabel has even picked up the story, here.

This information coming to light has caused a lot of anger, sadness, and even some mistrust in the online Anthropologie community. This community was built on trust---many members trade Anthro items with each other through the mail, for example---and to see someone so well-known take advantage of that trust is unexpected and hurtful. I spent more time than I care to admit reading information about this and trying to make sense of it in my head, but I was mostly just dumbfounded that such a thing could really happen. Part of me still feels like I'm waiting for a reasonable explanation to emerge.

Mostly, I’m sad. I’m sad for the men and women who lost money dealing with Kim, sad for the community that has now spent days talking about this, and as unpopular as it may be to admit, I’m sad for Kim.  Anthropologiesque posted an entry today about her completely deserved anger over all this, questioning why anybody would ever feel bad for a person who seems to have stolen many thousands of dollars from potentially a hundred victims.

She makes great points, and frankly I can’t tell you why I feel sad for Kim. Perhaps because I feel as though I’ve watched part of her life crumble right before my eyes. Valid criminal charges may be pressed because of this. The course of her future may be forever altered. My mom worried for her safety.

Don’t get me wrong---the people who most deserve our sympathy are the victims of this scam. No doubt about it whatsoever. And Kim deserves whatever justice is coming to her as a result of her actions, including jail time if that’s what the law demands. Still, I think it’s okay to feel sad that this happened. Nobody wins in this situation, no matter how you slice it or resolve it.

Where do we go from here?
Roxy has encouraged the victims of this scam to file reports with the Attorney General in Illinois (where Kim lives) or with the FBI. You can read Roxy’s instructions for doing so here. I’d like to emphasize that even if you are a foreign national and do not think the U.S. Justice system will be able to resolve your problem or get your money back, please do still contact both of these justice agencies. There may be something that can be done for you individually, and either way, your evidence may help the case.

For those who lost money with Kim, my heart goes out to and I fervently hope you are able to get it back. I also want to tell you not to feel embarrassed or ashamed that you have been victimized. This was not your fault. Nobody blames you, nor should you blame yourself. I have been the victim of violent crime twice---once in May when I was robbed and once in college, which I’m not comfortable talking about on the internet yet. I know that sometimes, what hurts the most is not the damage that you suffer physically or financially, but rather the damage to your ability to trust yourself and others. Do not let those negative thoughts get to you. Stay strong!

Despite my sadness, I find myself filled with hope and optimism for the future of Anthropologie and the online Anthropologie community. Way back when this drama was just a few mean comments on the internet (ohhh, three days ago, how I long for your innocence), we seemed to realize that taking ourselves too seriously was not a virtue. We learned the value of accepting critiques, changing, and broadening our horizons.

I think there is a lot to learn from what has happened with Kim. These are just a few lessons we can take from this crime:

  • Talk more about financial health. Some have speculated that Kim’s scam may have emerged from a potentially troubled personal financial situation. This is conjecture of course, but in it lies a pearl of wisdom for those of us who love clothes shopping. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with spending money on clothes, shoes, and accessories, but I do think our blogs present somewhat of a skewed perspective on the whole financial picture of a person. As much as I love reading about the new items people are buying, I would also love to read about the ways in which young women such as myself are saving, investing, paying down school loans, and still finding ways to shop and live fabulously. Sarah O. commented on this suggestion on EA, calling it “financial literacy.” I think we could all stand to be more financially literate and more open about building wealth as opposed to just spending it. I highly doubt that NONE of us have savings accounts, investment plans, or debt repayment strategies. So let’s talk about these things, too! It sounds as if several bloggers are interested in engaging in discussions about finances, budgets, and the like. In just the time it took me to write this entry, two bloggers already started the ball rolling: Tara at Little Girl Big Closet and Roxy have posted here (Tara) and here (Roxy). I think this can only serve to enrich the community and might help to put the shopping in a better perspective. This does not require 100% financial transparency on any blogger’s part, just a more well-rounded discussion. I am very, very excited about this potential change!

  • Make ourselves more open to (but not obsessive in response to) critique. Part of the reason why it took so long for Kim’s scam to come to light---about a year, in some cases---had to do with the fact that Kim has a very high profile in the Anthropologie community and many were reluctant to suggest that something fishy could be going on. Perhaps we can take from this experience the lesson that it’s okay to have healthy disagreements, whether those be about clothes-sizing or ways of doing business. This is not to suggest that meanies should get free reign to tease, but rather that constructive comments or suggestions should not be taken as insults, and neither should be taken as a mandate to change doing something we like just because it may not be universally popular.  And when they are insults, I hope we can learn to laugh it off and embrace the fact that our individual senses of style are ours to own.

  • Exercise caution about what we do on the internet.  More of a general life lesson than anything else, this whole week has been an excellent reminder that the internet gets around. Once you put something out there, it’s out there, so you better be able to stand behind the words you write and the photos you publish.

  • Push Anthropologie to modify their shipping and pricing policies. Part of the reason that Kim was able to take advantage of so many people is that Anthropologie’s international shipping charges are so unreasonable. Canadian Anthro fans must pay $40 per shipment to receive their order---an amount I have been told is much higher than the customs and duty taxes in place. Now, I don’t know exactly how this shipping cost is calculated or if it is in fact an accurate reflection of Anthro’s expenditures, but perhaps the folks at Anthropologie can look into lowering this cost, either by cutting it directly or opening up a Canadian warehouse to avoid the duty fees. Moreover, many European and international buyers noted that prices between the US and European site are different, with European products costing more money across the board. Many international customers engaged Kim’s services for this reason. Is this price differential a function of inflation or exchange rates? Is there a way for Anthropologie to make this pricing more consistent? I don’t blame Anthro for this situation, but I do think the company is in a unique position to address some of the issues that fed it (through no fault of their own).

I would bet that many of us might describe ourselves as “Anthro-holics.” It would be a shame if one person’s actions soured our feelings for a store we love and an online community we value.  I believe, in true “Inception” style, that the human mind wants to embrace positive emotions more than negative ones. This does not necessarily require forgiveness, only that we focus on healing. My hope for this community is that we take this opportunity for positive growth and change.

 I still have faith.

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