When you buy gloves, handbags and toys from Washington's downtown street vendors, chances are that you will pay inflated prices for second-rate merchandise. But the brassy-looking dangle earrings hawked by the street merchants could be a better buy than those sold by retail stores.
And flowers? Sometimes vendor flowers are so bad that they're not worth their wrappers. Other times, they are better than those sold by regular flower shops.
Those are the findings of a panel of experts assembled by The Washington Post to evaluate merchandise purchased from street vendors and compare it to similar goods purchased from downtown Washington retail stores. The mix of store and street merchandise was presented in the form of a blind test. Without knowing where the goods came from, the experts examined the goods, rated them on the quality of material used, craftsmanship and stylishness, and then priced each item.
In purchasing merchandise for the survey, The Post looked for items commonly sold by street vendors, then bought similar merchandise from retail stores.
The gloves, handbags and earrings were removed from their original packaging, numbered and submitted to professional buyers for an evaluation, with the understanding that the buyers would not be named.
The flowers were purchased the same morning, immediately placed in a bucket of water and transported to a flower judge -- Pam Marshall, a floriculture specialist with the University of the District of Columbia Extension Office.
The toys were submitted to the Consumer Affairs Committee of Greater Washington, a nonprofit group that conducts a toy safety and price study each year. The committee is chaired by Ann Brown; the toy study is directed by Debbie Wager and Charlye Malloy.
Here is a summary of the conclusions:
* Men's gloves. Of two pairs of split leather men's gloves, the vendor gloves were found to be of a low-quality leather, have poor stitching and improperly dyed edges. They also had a thinner lining than the store gloves.
* Women's handbags. Of the six bags examined, the three vendor bags were less fashionable, made of lower-quality leather and stamped with meaningless signature designs. The metal zipper on one worked poorly.
* Toy robots. Those from vendors were cheap, simple copies that child testers found "boring" because they had fewer movable parts and were less challenging than the originals.
* Brass-looking earrings. Of the six pairs evaluated, the one rated best by the experts came from a vendor. Its price was estimated at $7.50, but it cost only $5. Experts underestimated the price of the other five pairs of earrings.
* Fresh flowers. Each of the seven batches of carnations contained at least one damaged flower. The worst batch came from a vendor. Of the two batches rated best, one came from a vendor and one from a florist.
"With flowers, it is knowing what to look for, rather than where to buy," Marshall said. She said shoppers should look for crispness and smell, because "the more the carnation smells, the fresher it is."
Vendors hoping for holiday sales are now cramming the sidewalks with their wares: Wind-up bears that beat crazy tunes on tiny toy drums, battery-operated robots, piles of "real cashmere sweaters," fancy framed pictures, gleaming brass vases, signature purses, "100 percent pure wool scarfs" and a colorful assortment of headgear.
At present, the District of Columbia has nearly 7,000 licensed vendors. About 4,000 of them are active year-round; the others vend only for one or two special events, such as a rock concert.
One measure of the growth of the vending business here is found in the increase in citations charging vendors with such violations as vending without a license, vending with the wrong kind of license and vending in unauthorized areas.
During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, District police issued about 3,000 citations, compared to about 2,000 the previous year, according to Sgt. Jose Acosta, vending coordinator for the District. The vending squad directed by Acosta includes six regular officers and three back-up officers who monitor vendor activities and respond to consumer complaints.
"We get calls from people complaining about defective products they have bought from vendors and about problems with warranties on the vendor products," Acosta said. "People may complain that when they went back to the vendor with a bad product that the vendor was gone. Or he may have been there but wasn't responsive to the complaint or denied that he had sold the product."
There are also complaints from consumers about counterfeit products they bought from vendors, Acosta said. He said that police did a "sweep of K Street" in early December and seized a wide range of merchandise from eight vendors. The merchandise included what were labeled as Calvin Klein cashmere sweaters and Izod shirts, Acosta said, adding that the merchandise is now being examined to determine if it is counterfeit and if charges should be filed against the vendors.
Police have contacted professional buyers to help them develop the case, Acosta said, because "police officers can't always tell the difference" between a genuine brand-name item and a counterfeit.
Neither can consumers. But there are clues that can help make that determination.
Consider the case of the men's split leather gloves purchased for the Post survey. Pair No. 1 was purchased from a street vendor; Pair No. 2 from a retail store. At a glance they appeared to be identical.
Without knowing where they came from, the glove expert provided this analysis:
"The exterior quality of the suede of the two pairs of gloves seems to be similar," he said. "And they both have acrylic lining. But this pair No. 1 is cheaper. The leather used for the finger sidewalls is very poor; the edges of the fingers aren't dyed properly; the lining is thinner."
The expert then pointed to Pair No. 2. "These have a bit of elastic stitching at the wrist that provides a better fit, a more tapered look, and more warmth. The lining is puffier and that also gives more warmth -- like a duck fluffing its feathers. And the way the fingertip seams are joined is better with this pair than with the other pair."
He said that a man wearing Pair No. 1 might eventually poke a finger through the fingtertip seam, because of the inadequate seam joining.
"I'd say you bought this pair No. 1 for $8 from a street vendor and this pair No. 2 for $16 from a store," he said. The expert was right on target: Pair No. 1 was purchased for $7 from a vendor; Pair No. 2 for $15.90 from a store.
The handbag expert was equally accurate in her analysis of the six bags, paraphrased here:
* No. 1 looks like a street handbag. It is nylon with initials, but they aren't recognizable initials. It might be appealing to a customer on the street who can't afford a status [initialed] bag because it gives them that look. I would put the price at $8 to $10. (This fabric bag with initialed design was purchased from a vendor for $10).
* No. 2 is a striped coated vinyl with black trim and the brand name "Le Sac" on the side. This was a strong style for a while, but not at this time of year. Also, this material isn't popular now. So I would say that it has a regular price of $32 to $34, but now is selling for $15 to $16. (This bag was purchased from a retail store for $38.15, including tax).
* No. 3 is a black leather bag. The handles are finished fairly well, but the rest of the bag is not finished well and the styling is very old. I would say it could be a store bag, but would sell for $10 or less. (This bag was purchased from a retail store for $24.91 including tax).
* No. 4 is a bone leather bag that would be attractive to some customers because of all the compartments. But the zippers are pretty bad. Most people don't want metal zippers because they catch on everything. The leather is very low quality and it is poorly finished. It could be from a street vendor, and should sell for $10 or less. (This bag was purchased from a vendor for $12.)
* No. 5 has a "Bon Jour" tag, and it is a junior area item. It looks like woven vinyl and I doubt anyone would get more than $5 for it. It is in pretty bad shape. (This bag was purchased from a vendor for $10.)
* No. 6 is a Liz Claiborne bag and if you found it on the street, I'd like to know where. This is a quality bag and well-made. It also has the Claiborne signature, which is her answer to what Gucci does. This came from a store and the price is $44 to $46. (The bag came from a store and cost $46.64 with tax.)
The one category in which vendor merchandise clearly beats store goods was costume jewelry earrings.
The best pair of the six, according to the expert, appeared to have been hand made, was properly finished and had the round shape that is popular at present. In the expert's opinion, this pair had been purchased from a store for $7.50.
In fact, it came from a street vendor and cost $5.
Two other vendor pieces, however, received low marks from the expert, on the grounds that one had a blemish and the other had sharp edges. The expert was equally critical of two other store-bought earrings because of poor wires and poor styling.
Asked to identify the metal with which the brassy-looking jewelry was made, the expert shrugged and said that it appeared to be brass. "But you can't be sure. You'd have to see if your ears turned green."