For those who want the look of Rodeo Drive but don't have the stomach or wallet to shell out hundreds, if not thousands, for the designer purses fashionistas tote everywhere, there's an alternative besides knockoffs.
Online handbag-rental companies, first launched four years ago, now have a bevy of competitors trying to corner the market. And a cameo in the movie "Sex and the City" this summer gave the concept an even higher profile.
The rentals cost as little as $22.95 a week with shipping and insurance but can climb to more than $390 a week for the fanciest purses. Although all the companies offer perks and lower prices to those with memberships, we opted to rent without joining. We did sign up for insurance when possible, though.
All the services offered top designer bags, but they also all showed weaknesses. RentMeAHandbag.com makes users register to learn any details about the bags, while From Bags to Riches organized bags only by "collection," not by designer, color, or shape. Avelle had lots of bags but many with wait lists. AllThatBags.com gave us such troubles we had to contact customer service three times.
The companies are also new - and niche - enough that two Boston area stylists say their clients have never asked about renting bags. Alice Miles, managing partner of Stilista in Brighton, said her clients have found great bags to purchase at many different prices. And, she said, they don't want the popular bags that others already own - or rent. "People really want that exclusivity," she said.
We were glad we tested the bags before plunking down a load of cash. The black buckle of a Tracy Reese "Isa" clutch we rented looked less solid in person than in photographs.
Also, Alisa Neely, a personal shopper with Boston-based Scout, said the rentals could come in handy for a special occasion when, say, that Chanel quilted tote with pearl chains would complete an outfit. Cost: $242 per week.
Still, the rental prices are higher than they initially appear. A $19 per week charge with RentMeAHandbag.com then had an optional $15 fee for insurance to cover "excessive wear or damage," an option offered in some form by all four companies. All the sites except From Bags to Riches tacked on additional fees that increased the final cost.
Further, the services all start the clock on the rentals differently. A weekly rental could begin when the user receives the bag or when the company ships it out. Check the fine print to avoid additional charges. Only From Bags to Riches sent us a reminder about returning the bag to avoid additional charges.
That company won our vote for such straightforward service and because it offered the easiest way to return the purse. All the sites provide prepaid return shipping labels, but From Bags to Riches lets the consumer schedule a pickup from DHL, rather than schlep the box to a drop-off site for FedEx or UPS. And its lower overall cost means more money saved for other trendy accessories.
Red Monsac petite shoulder bag
Cost: $22.95 (which included $100 insurance coverage and shipping)
Pros: Truth in advertising. Not only was it the lowest price of any of the bags we rented, but the bag's price already included insurance and shipping so we didn't have any surprises at checkout. The clock for the rental also starts when the customer receives the bag and ends when DHL picks it up for the return, meaning the customer knows how long to keep the bag before racking up extra charges. An e-mail reminder also helped.
Cons: The website groups bags in collections such as "Madison Avenue" and "Monaco Runway" that correlate to price but it doesn't let the customer easily sort bags by color, shape, or designer unless using the somewhat clunky advanced search options. The bag that arrived had a few small scratches on it but still had a Monsac card tucked inside.
The final word: A good company that makes it easy on the consumer to know what they are getting into and how much it's going to cost.
Orange Michael Kors Brookville
medium shoulder bag
Cost: $19 for the bag, plus $15 optional damage insurance = $34
Pros: The helpful site allows the user to search by color, designer, or style, and essentially by price, with silver, gold, platinum, and runway collections. Once the customer clicks on a bag, the site suggests shoes and other items to rent with it. A company representative called the next day to politely confirm the shipping address and last four digits on credit card used; Kalu Emole, president and chief executive officer, later explained they spot check new customers to protect against fraud. The bag then arrived in mint condition.
Cons: The website makes users register to view details about the bags and doesn't immediately show the price.
The final word: The company offers a user-friendly website that gives users lots of ways to choose a bag.
Brown Tracy Reese "Isa" clutch
Cost: $26 for the bag, $2 optional insurance, and $9.95 shipping charges = $37.95
Pros: This website has a wide selection of new and vintage bags. It also shows an icon indicating the bag size against a silhouetted body and suggests similar styles once you click on a bag. You can also buy the bag; they send a price quote based on the bag's condition and exclusivity.
Cons: Many of the cheaper bags had wait lists and the bag we got arrived with a few scratches. Jodi Watson, the company's chief marketing officer, said the bags are cleaned and inspected before they are sent out, but she apologized for our bag's condition. She offered a replacement, which she said they do for any customer who isn't satisfied. As for the wait lists, she said, the company has had a spike in popularity since the site was featured in the movie "Sex and the City."
The final word: This site has lots to crow about, but the wait lists, plus the tacked on costs, turned us off somewhat.
Black Coach "Ergo" patent leather hobo
Cost: $28 for bag, plus insurance and standard shipping = $36.35
Pros: The bag arrived, after some hassles, in great shape. The company gave us an extra week to keep the purse when we alerted them it arrived without a return label.
Cons: The Las Vegas company charged our credit card, then sent an e-mail a day later to say they couldn't complete the order unless we faxed them copies of a driver's license and credit card. Meanwhile, the charge on the credit card remained, though the other companies had left their charges as "pending" until the shipments were cleared. Once we proved our identity, the package arrived without an invoice or information on returning the bag. When the company sent a link to a UPS shipping label to print out, it didn't work. Chief executive Angelia Bronson apologized, explaining her year-old company is small. She said they are taking precautions with new customers because they lost three bags to fraud.
The final word: We spent too much time dealing with customer service.