BRADENTON -- Daring or demure? Sabrina, strapless or sweetheart? Long or short?
All of these decisions take time when it comes to prom season -- and, once made, they have to be unique to the girl who makes them.
After all, it's all about her style, so having a twin gown show up at the prom could be devastating.
Emma Carper, a senior at Manatee High School, wasn't taking any chances--that's why her prom season began in December when she started shopping for the perfect dress.
The 18-year-old trusts Charlie Kennedy of Rusty Crickett's Coastal City Cottage to help her with the perfect evening gown -- one that she won't see on any other girl at her prom.
"Ms. Kennedy is the safest way to go," Carper said.
Kennedy is known for going above and beyond, providing her personal cell phone to her teenage customers, and says it's not out of the ordinary to have one of the girls call her at 10 p.m. just to find out if a dress is still available.
Buying a dress from Rusty Crickett's can almost be competitive. The store, 615 15th St. West, offers what Kennedy calls an "exclusive dress offer."
"When the girls come in, I say, 'I want your dress to be special.' So we labeled this dress 'sold to Manatee and Riverview high schools,' so if they come in from those schools I won't sell it to that school, and I won't even sell it in a different color," Kennedy said. "They're spending a lot of money, and I want their dress to be special."
Prom night indeed adds up: Families figure to spend $1,139 this year, according to a survey by Visa and Gfk.
While teens might save money by sharing a limo or splitting dinner expenses, the girls want to look special and, if they can afford to, will splurge on a dress.
Some teens have turned to social media to stake a claim on a dress amongst friends, but Carper said that's a no-go for her.
"I really don't like to post pictures of my dress on Facbeook because I like it to be a surprise," she said. Texting pictures to a couple friends is the safer route, she thinks.
Carper flipped through catalogues by Christmas and wanted to get a jump start on other girls who traveled as far as Orlando and North Port, picking out dresses.
"It's always nerve-racking thinking you're spending a bunch of money on a dress you love and that someone could show up with the same thing," Carper said.
For Ciara Hanbury, 18, it's exemplified at a small school like Bradenton Christian Academy, which is why she also relies on Rusty Crickett.
"It's not that big of a school, but you want a dress that's different from everyone," she said. "They only let one person from
each school wear that dress, and you don't have to worry about having the same dress as you."
Going to Kennedy is also easier than buying online where cost-conscious consumers can stumble on prom dress websites that can leave them heartbroken.
Scam websites are easy to find by accident for anyone searching for "cheap prom dresses" online. Many of the contact pages list locations in Hong Kong and China, and some lack a toll-free 800 number, which should be red flags, Kennedy said.
"Anyone you're dealing with, ask them if they're an authorized user," Kennedy said.
One of the prominent legitimate dress websites, DressGoddess, reiterates Kennedy's caution for those looking online for a good deal. Most of the time, those deals are just too good to be true.
"Any authorized dealer will be within $10 of each other," Kennedy said. "If you see a $400 dress here and you see that La Femme model and it's $200 online, that's a red flag that it is a counterfeit website."
Scam websites use photos of the La Femme model from online catalogues, and when the dress arrives, it arrives too late for prom, is poorly made or doesn't fit, according to both Kennedy and Jon Liney, president of DressGoddess. Good luck trying to get a refund, too, they said.
"If you see a prom dress on nearly every e-commerce website and retail store for $298, and then you find the dress on a website for 50 percent off that price, that dress is a fake knock-off that will only disappoint you on prom night," Liney said.
It's safer to shop vintage, where you're more likely to have a one-of-a-kind in hand, or go to the big retailers where you might find a dress on sale, but take a chance someone else will be wearing your style, than to try going discount online.
Kennedy's prom season starts in August when she attends the AmericasMart Atlanta apparel show to check out the latest trends (bedazzled and jeweled dresses with sweetheart necklines, by the way), and orders about 200 dresses to arrive in January. It's a big business at the gift shop, accounting for about half of the business there, Kennedy said.
"Some girls will stay in a dressing room for two hours. They don't know what to do and want me to make a decision for them," Kennedy said. "I try to put it back at them and ask them, 'When you look in the mirror, what makes you feel beautiful?'"
The indecisiveness can linger, but Kennedy is OK with that because she can offer overnight shipping for those truly last-minute shoppers. All that adventure in prom season is worth it.
"It doesn't get any better than that -- making a girl happy," Kennedy said. "When she feels beautiful, you feel like you've done a good job at the end of your work day."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.