By  on April 21, 2009

HONG KONG — Buyers rummaged through the plethora of leather merchandise on display at this year’s Asia Pacific Leather Fair in the hope of securing better deals without having to sacrifice on quality, even as orders dwindled and budgets were tightened amid the negative buying environment.

Attendance dropped slightly to 29,533, compared with 33,531 last year at the fair, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Close to 2,000 exhibitors from over 60 countries packed the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Center from March 31 to April 2, offering everything from hides and skins, synthetic leather materials and finished leather to handbags, leather goods, footwear, apparel and accessories.

Promotion of this year’s event was particularly pertinent given the economic climate, organizers UBM Asia said.

“This 25th anniversary shows the continued need for face-to-face contact with potential customers and new suppliers,” said Michael Duck, director of APLF.

Swarovski used the fair as a platform to launch new crystal application technologies for smooth leather, an innovative move company executives believe will be used to distinguish products.

The leather industry is undergoing one of its bleakest periods, with a glut of raw leather supplies building up on the back of slower sales to the automobile and furniture industries. But even as raw material prices have dipped by 20 to 60 percent over the last six months, buyers have continued to opt for quality over volume.

“Customers understand that quality is more important than quantity, so even though order volumes are down, our customers are still demanding the same standard of quality as before,” said Anita Scafuro, sales manager at family-run leather manufacturer Pellerossa in southern Italy.

This less-is-more approach was seen throughout the fair as buyers shopped prudently and placed minimum orders.

“We have to adjust our mind-set and source in the same way as consumers are buying: less volume but quality goods nonetheless,” said Suhaila Reshad, president of California-based Blue Star International, a leather goods and footwear wholesaler to North America and Europe.

Handbag and leather goods manufacturers are responding to this buying strategy with caution, ensuring trends are accurately adopted for each market, and focusing on the production of fewer, but quality products that can offer the best value to customers.

“Most customers have cut by half the number of options within a range and are working with fewer vendors. They are now focusing on their bread-and-butter products and aren’t taking any chances,” said Gavin Watson, chairman of Hong Kong-based Blair Accessories, a designer and manufacturer of leather goods for brands like Ted Baker, John Rocha and Jasper Conran. “We need to be smarter on design and pricing, and ensure our products are value for money. With consumers buying less, they really want to feel what they are buying is worthwhile.”

Cheaper raw material prices have typically signaled good news for leather goods manufacturers, but most say slower business has deterred them from taking advantage of the declining price trend.

“With buyers not placing orders and the labor and hardware costs keeping steady or high, the raw material price crash has made little difference to us,” said Gautam Sayal, a partner in New Delhi-based handbag manufacturer Aries Inc.

Those dependent on the U.S. market are finding themselves in an especially tight bind, with leather apparel among the worst hit categories.

“We are in a better position because we have a niche market, but sales are very much down and it has become very hard to get new customers,” said Javid Latif, who owns Pakistan biker apparel manufacturer Samal.

Some manufacturers like Hong Kong’s C-Corp International are weathering the economic doldrums by hedging their bets by focusing on China.

“With order volumes down by 50 percent to the U.S., Europe and Japan, we are focusing on China’s domestic market,” said managing director Matthew Chow. “China is feeling the pinch too, but we feel there is at least still some hope there.”

Like many buyers, Julia Dolfin, a sourcing manager at U.S.-based Swank Inc, a supplier of men’s leather accessories, was focused on cost cutting where possible.

“One of my goals is to renegotiate prices and faster turnaround times from 90 to 60 to 75 days so we can control sales better,” Dolfin said. “No one wants high inventories now.”

Through it all, accessories manufacturers seem to have emerged undaunted, confident their market remains resilient so long as their pieces offer global appeal.

“We haven’t suffered too much from the downturn because people are still buying costume jewelry, perhaps more so than the real gold and diamonds because it is more affordable in this climate,” said Rosemarie Oamil, managing director of Mika Gela, a designer and manufacturer of costume jewelry in the Philippines.

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