By  on February 17, 2009

Conspicuous consumption is so…2007.

With shopping now viewed as unfashionable, most men are reluctant to set foot in a store, let alone slap down their credit cards for anything as frivolous as a new suit. But there is one merchandise category that appears to be bucking the trend: accessories.

From cuff links to belt buckles, retailers are finding that these relatively minor extravagances can help boost customers’ spirits while allowing them to express their individuality.

“A guy could be all business during the week, but then rides a motorcycle on the weekend,” said Karen Penner, co-owner of M. Penner in Houston, who is selling Harley-riding mavericks skull cuff links from Scott Kay and colorful socks from Paul Smith.

“People are pulling back,” she admitted, “but they’re still willing to spend a little money to snazz things up a bit.”

Penner said the Scott Kay men’s jewelry is “refreshing and different and really affordable for what it is” — attributes that have not been lost on the store’s male shoppers. “Each piece is a statement, which is different for men. It’s been like that in women’s jewelry for some time,” she said.

Penner also noted the store’s success with a novel item called Wurkin Stiffs, a collar stay with a magnet on the back. “A lot of guys are not wearing ties and these make a shirt stand up nicely and look neat,” she said. “It’s a $25 retail item, but every time you can add that to a sale, it makes an impact.”

The same thing for Paul Smith socks. “They’re different and fun and a way for a man to add something to a conservative outfit.”

The store is also doing well with belts from Etro and other vendors.

“It’s been a tough season for everything with the glut of merchandise out there selling at 20 cents on the dollar, so we have to give them something unique that offers great value,” she said.

Stanley Korshak has also seen success within its men’s accessories area. “I think we caught a wave here,” said owner Crawford Brock, pointing to the store’s men’s accessories shop that opened right before Christmas. “We took all our men’s accessories — shoes, bags, cuff links, belts, underwear, pajamas, robes and sleepwear — and put them together on the left of our front door. And the results have been outstanding.” During the holidays, Brock also added some gifts such as adapters for European travel and other unique items to lure customers.

Among the top-selling items, he noted, have been James Reid’s silver belt buckles, Lolly Harrison monogrammed belts, and Catherine Zadeh cuff links.

“We recognized that the business from our accessories world was pretty sizable — it just didn’t have a home. Now it’s obvious and in your face,” Brock said.

Saks Fifth Avenue has also thrown its muscle behind accessories — with good results. In late November, the store opened three new men’s accessories shops at its Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Tysons Corner, Va., stores. Although the mix varies by location, all include enhanced jewelry, watch and sunglasses presentations.

“The shops were very successful [during the holidays],” said Tom Ott, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Saks. “We achieved our plan and proved that when you have a critical assortment, it’s a ‘wow.’”

Ott attributed the success to the changing mind-set of the male consumer. “Customers are more demanding and worldly today and they’re reacting to designer or better accessories, jewelry, etc. Before, this didn’t register on a lot of guys’ radars.”

The accessories category is also getting a boost from “improvements in design, detail and functionality,” he added, such as briefcases that incorporate pockets for phones, BlackBerrys and the like. “They recognize that there’s real value in it. Apparel gets dated, but there’s real craftsmanship here and they look at it as an investment.”

Ott said that Scott Kay’s cuff links have “really resonated with the customer. A lot of guys are wearing open-collar shirts today and they won’t wear a necklace or bracelet, but they will wear great cuff links.” He said the line appeals to both the core classic customer as well as the contemporary shopper.

Ott said Scott Kay’s business has experienced “very rapid growth over the past 18 months” and helps Saks keep moving ahead in the accessories area. “We’ve set the bar, but we keep pushing it up.”

To cuff link craftsman Scott Kay, the men’s jewelry category is “a great opportunity” for retailers. It allows customers to accessorize their outfits while expressing their individuality “and people really enjoy it.” His two strongest categories have been “cuffwear” and bracelets, he said, and he has also been “surprised” by the growth of the necklaces and rings.

Tyler Mitchell, furnishings buyer for Mitchells in Westport, Conn., is also bullish on accessories. “With fewer visits in the new economy, accessories are a great way to build a sale and maximize the customers who are coming in,” he said. The stores began putting more emphasis on the category last September as a way to create add-on business. For example, Mitchell explained, when a shopper comes in for an appointment, store personnel also pull belts, shoes and other items to coordinate. “Customers love it,” he said. “You can’t beat going in to shop as a man and having everything laid out for you.”

Among the top performers, he said are “the new and different things,” such as Moore and Giles bags, Ovadafut socks and Torino belts in exotic skins such as tiger-shark, African elephant and lizard.

Mitchell said he believes these and other accessories items connect with customers because they’re unique. “They’re new and different than what they’ve seen elsewhere,” he said. In the future, he believes the store has a “huge opportunity to upgrade our customers’ underwear.”

Garmany, based in Red Bank, N.J., has seen substantial growth in cuff links and other men’s jewelry over the past year and a half, according to buyer/manager Johnell Garmany. Most of the pieces sell for under $1,000, which allows the store’s high-end customers to accessorize their outfits without as much of an outlay as a new suit or luxury sport coat.

Garmany saw an opportunity when French cuff shirts began gaining in popularity in both the dress and sport shirt markets a couple of years ago. “We saw that we were running out of cuff links,” he said, “so we bought more casual, fun stuff and the business just exploded.”

Although cuff links by Scott Kay, Duchamp and Jan Leslie are far and away the strongest items, the store is also doing well with pocket squares, sunglasses and bracelets, he said.

“They’re not superexpensive and guys buy them on impulse,” he said.

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