Please Mum's new vintage line prompts complaints

Daniel MacEachern dmaceachern@thetelegram.com
Published on December 17, 2011

Parents across Newfoundland are upset that clothing they gave to Please Mum in exchange for store credit - under the impression the Canadian children's wear chain would be donating the clothing to charity - is resurfacing for sale in the store's own locations.

Last summer, Dara Squires' husband took their daughter to Please Mum in Corner Brook to buy her a dress, using "Greenbacks" - a form of store credit she received in exchange for several bags' worth of the family's used clothing as part of a temporary new exchange program the company was trying.

"They were on a daddy-daughter date," said the Corner Brook mother of three, adding their daughter was allowed to pick out whatever dress she wanted. The Greenbacks were supposed to be used within 30 days of receipt and were due to expire soon. "She picked out a rather expensive dress, and he went up to the cash to pay for it, and they told him that they couldn't take the credit because they were closing the store."

But over the summer, Please Mum declared bankruptcy, and announced it would be closing all but 21 of its 91 locations - the store has since announced it will only be keeping 13 locations open - and that gift cards would no longer be valid.

Squires said she wasn't upset at the loss of about $60 in Greenbacks - were it not for the exchange program, she said, she would have simply donated the clothes to the thrift store, and she'd already used some of the credit in an earlier shopping trip. "I don't usually bother selling my used kids' clothes, so we weren't out any money," she said.

Things changed for Squires, though, when she started hearing stories about people buying useless gift cards after the company said it wouldn't be accepting them.

"In the store, the girls explained to me that a certain percentage of it would be going to Canadian shelters, and another amount - she said not much because it costs a lot to transport it - but some of the stuff would be going to some of the countries that they work with World Vision in," she said. "And some of the Please Mum clothes that had fabrics that were still reusable, they would reuse the fabric to make a new vintage line."

The outlet in Corner Brook has since closed, and the outlet in the Avalon Mall in St. John's offers racks of second-hand clothing, including non-Please Mum-brand items.

But Susannah Kellett, Please Mum general manager in the company's Vancouver head office, said the intention of the Greenbacks program was always meant to support the creation of the vintage "Karma Chameleon" line.

"We got thousands of pieces brought back, so we've sorted a large amount of it to go to charity," she said.

"And the other part of it is the vintage Karma Chameleon concept, that we've now tested out in a few of our locations across the country. We are donating a portion of it, and the other portion is going to be part of this vintage clothing line, if we continue with it as a company."

Kellett couldn't say what percentage is being donated, but estimated 25 to 50 per cent of the clothing is going to charity. She said customers weren't told that all of the clothing would be going to charity.

"We told our customers that a portion of it would go to charity, and a portion of it would be tested as part of an initiative around recycling clothing," she said, adding that she felt the company adequately explained the program to its customers.

"They were explained to our staff. Our staff had information to explain to customers. We issued a statement on the website, so I feel like it was explained well to customers."

Kellett also said customers had 30 days to use Greenbacks, and the program ended more than a month before Please Mum declared bankruptcy, so any Greenbacks issued should have been used by then.

But store customers in Newfoundland say any mention of the store reselling clothing was downplayed to them, if mentioned at all.

Charmaine Ralph of Conception Bay South picked up about $30 worth in store credit for the clothes she brought in, and used them right away.

She said the clerk gave her the impression it was all going to an overseas charity. It wasn't until she saw a posting on a Facebook group for people swapping children's items that she learned Please Mum was selling some of the clothing it took in, including non-Please Mum-brand clothing.

"We're moms, and if we'd wanted it to be sold, we could have sold it. We just kind of feel taken advantage of," said the mother of two. The store credit still felt like a donation, she said, because the Greenbacks credit required an equal amount spent by the customer; to use $30 in Greenbacks, Ralph said, her purchase had to total at least $60.

Tracy Langdon of St. John's exchanged five garbage bags' worth of clothing, earning a few hundred dollars' worth of credit. But the mother of four didn't get a chance to use the credit. Not long after receiving it, she gave birth, and a couple of weeks after that, her mother died.

"The only consolation for me was this clothing was going to World Vision, or a needy child," she said, adding that she was told clothing would be going either to World Vision or to a local children's clothing bank. "I had no clue that this clothing would be in some way resold within their business. I definitely wouldn't have donated to that."

Langdon said she doesn't think she'll be shopping at Please Mum anymore.

"I'd definitely think twice about going there now. You know what? I don't think I'm going to go," she said.

"It's unfortunate because there's not a lot of children's clothing stores available, especially at those prices. ... I feel that was false advertising. I was misled, definitely."

Squires in particular is upset by the company's actions. She writes a parenting column and produces a popular blog, readilyaparent.com

"I feel like I let people down because I pushed a program that wasn't what it said it was."

She said she thinks the company may have had better intentions for the second-hand clothing but that Please Mum's financial troubles prompted it to try to make as much money as it could from the items.

"They've always been a company that's talked about honesty and integrity, and I think they really owe their customers an apology for not giving them more notification that they wouldn't be accepting gift cards and store credit," she said.

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com Twitter: TelegramDaniel