By  on September 19, 1994

NEW YORK -- After a boom period in the late Eighties, a group of accessories specialty store chains still appear to be on a growth track.

The leaders are continuing to develop through domestic and international expansion as well as by acquisition. And while these firms, such as Claire's Boutiques, Afterthoughts and The Icing, continue to focus mostly on mall-based units that offer moderately priced merchandise, at least one newcomer -- Spangles -- is taking a different strategy by offering better-priced goods in freestanding locations.

"Accessories afford a lot of flexibility to the smart merchant," said Janet Mangano, a retail analyst at Burnham Securities here. Mangano pointed out that these types of operations can get the best of both worlds by building a large core of basic merchandise and spicing up the selection with a constant influx of trendier items.

"There are still retail opportunities for accessories," Mangano noted. "They offer consumers an inexpensive way to update their wardrobes."

Here, a look at some of the key players.

Claire's Boutiques

Claire's Boutiques is among the largest of the accessories chains. According to chairman Rowland Schaeffer, Claire's Boutiques -- which is operated by Claires Stores Inc. -- will close out its latest fiscal year next January with 1,200 units in the U.S., Canada, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Within Claire's Boutiques are three separate chains that operate under the names of Claire's, Topkapi and Dara Michelle. Claire's makes up the majority of the units, with Topkapi and Dara Michelle accounting for 135 and 28 others, respectively.

Schaeffer said Claire's expects to surpass the $300 million mark in volume this year. For the fiscal year ended Jan. 29, 1994, the company posted sales of $281.7 million, a 14 percent increase over the year before, and earnings came to $23.6 million, a jump of 62.4 percent. Same-store sales increased 8 percent and inventory turnover reached a record high of 3.3, Schaeffer said during a recent presentation to retail analysts.

Claire's is currently poised to enter the Far East via a joint venture with Jesco, a Japanese megaretailer whose volume topped $18 billion last year. Schaeffer said Claire's Nippon Ltd. will begin opening Claire's Boutiques next month, with 500 stores planned over the next three to five years.The company plans further expansion by moving into Canada next year and opening at least 40 stores by the end of 1995. Schaeffer added that Claire's is contemplating a move into Mexico as well, although the firm might opt for a franchise operation there rather than a partnership.

He added that Claire's still sees opportunities in the U.S., particularly in urban locations. Three sites here and one in Chicago are scheduled to open over the next few months. Claire's currently operates 14 stores in outlet centers and plans to expand there as well, although Schaeffer declined to say when or where.

With $37 million in cash on hand and a low debt level of $6 million, Schaeffer said, "We look forward to more acquisitions."

Claire's focuses on "trendy women from high school through career women and older who shop the malls," according to Schaeffer.

"Young teens are key for us, because they become our customer at 12 and grow up with us," he noted.

The average Claire's store is 850 to 900 square feet with sales that "exceed $300 per square foot, which, according to the real estate and mall developers that we work with, outpaces our competition by 20 to 30 percent," Schaeffer said. All merchandise is private label, mostly from overseas resources.

Schaeffer pointed to strong buying power paired with rapid product flow as the main reasons for the company's success.

"We try to offer the best fashion product at the best price," he said, adding that although the product line has been moderate, retailing from $8 to $30, Claire's is now testing some pieces that retail for slightly more than $40.

Fashion watches are the latest category to be added. The chain's top 500 units will begin selling a selection of 400 styles by Oct. 15. Each piece will retail for $16.99.

Claire's is also planning promotional programs. Starting at the end of this month, a free cosmetic bag is being offered to anyone making a purchase of $9.99 or more. This move fits in with the upcoming launch of Claire's cosmetics line next spring.

Afterthoughts

Afterthoughts, the nine-year-old division of F.W. Woolworth here, has 860 stores, 100 of which use the name Carimar. Stores are located throughout the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Mexico City.While Woolworth's does not release figures for each of its divisions, industry sources estimate that Afterthoughts' volume last year passed $260 million. A chunk of that may have come from the purchase of the 114-unit Accessory Lady chain, whose sales in 1992 were estimated to be around $69 million.

In addition, Afterthoughts bought out Etcetera, a 30-unit chain. Prior to that, the firm's most recent purchase was the 80-store Joan Barri chain in 1992.

Afterthoughts plans to add another 10 units by the end of this year, according to Carol Von Speegle, vice president and general merchandise manager.

Von Speegle wouldn't comment on the company's growth in the last year, except to say that "accessories are running ahead of last year by 5 percent but jewelry has been flat." She added that first-quarter 1995 sales projections are for increases of about 3 percent.

While 98 percent of all Afterthoughts are mall locations, Von Speegle characterized downtown sites as a "growth area." She said city locations include a store here at 56th Street and Fifth Avenue, and 15 other units in cities that include Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Afterthoughts carries all categories of accessories, except for belts, and stores average 800 square feet. Von Speegle declined to give average sales per square foot.

She described the Afterthoughts customer as "very trendy" and between the ages of 16 and 40. She said that usually one side of a store is geared for juniors with the other side targeted more at misses and career looks. Average jewelry price points are $6, and handbags are about $12.

Although Von Speegle acknowledged that Afterthoughts targets many of the same consumers as other accessories chains, she noted that the merchant makes a major effort to stay on top of hot-selling fashion items by offering a trend newsletter every other week, written by the chain's buyers for its sales associates.

Von Speegle said she sees the trend in mini-backpacks continuing to be strong in the fourth quarter. She added that the chain does a lot of Christmas promotions in categories from earrings to hair accessories, socks and even hat boxes. Jeweled pins, gold- or silverplated chain necklaces and jet and crystal looks should give jewelry a needed boost, she noted.The Icing

While the larger chains primarily focus on affordably priced merchandise, The Icing features upper moderate-to-better priced accessories, with apparel items accounting for about 35 percent of inventory, according to Bob Simone, president and chief operating officer.

With 90 stores in operation and eight more under construction -- all slated for completion before the end of this year -- The Icing is also on an expansion track. The 7 1/2-year-old firm is based in Enfield, Conn.

Simone credits the chain's deliberate focus on a specific niche for its continued success.

"From the day we opened, we have stayed with who we are and never varied," he said. "Our customer is a woman from 25 to 55, averaging mid-30s, who likes to express herself with her accessories. She enjoys dressing and she demands something different."

Although he declined to give specific figures, he noted that "profits have steadily increased over the last four years, with growth coming from a combination of expansion and same-store increases."

Industry sources estimate the privately held firm's annual sales to be roughly $60 million.

While situated primarily in malls, The Icing is scheduled to open two locations this month in strip centers in Memphis and Omaha that feature upscale tenants. It will also open its first outlet unit in Gilroy, Calif., about 20 miles south of San Jose.

Simone said the stores average 1,400 square feet, with sales of about $500 per square foot.

Manufacturing is from domestic and overseas sources, and all merchandise is private label.

To keep customers coming back, Simone said the chain maintains a profile system to note consumer preferences and offers discounts and pre-sale previews through direct mail pieces six to seven times a year.

Heading into year-end, Mike Castellano, The Icing's general merchandise manager for accessories and jewelry, characterized jewelry and belts as "still pretty tough" categories. He did say, however, that bracelets and earrings have begun to check more recently with the help of more glitzy, special-occasion oriented looks, and that he is "betting on glitzy jewelry" as the strongest classification for holiday.He added that leather and special occasion handbags "remain tremendous," as do less decorative hats.

Spangles

Candice Shapiro, founder of the company, started out in 1985 with accessories kiosks in malls and opened her first Spangles store in West Hartford, Conn., in 1990. The four-unit chain also has stores in Rye, N.Y., and Ridgewood and Westfield, N.J.

Shapiro said she plans to open at least one store a year for the next several years, continuing her strategy of focusing on downtown areas of suburbs, rather than malls.

While the size of existing Spangles units varies from 750 to 1,900 square feet, future stores will be duplicates of the Westfield unit -- 1,900 square feet done in a kind of Victorian country look using white walls and blond-colored wood moldings and fixtures.

Shapiro declined to give a figure for sales per square foot, but did note that the chain is on target to meet its projected sales increase this year of 15 to 20 percent. She said 1994 volume is expected to reach nearly $2 million.

Shapiro describes Spangles customers as women from 25 to 50, the majority of whom work either in New York City or locally, and who have very active lifestyles with wardrobes requiring classic looks in career, casual, sporting and evening merchandise.

"We're more upscale than the chains," Shapiro said, "Our customer would shop at Bendel's or in the Village, but she just doesn't have the time."

Accessories and ready-to-wear items are split "about 50-50 in terms of dollars," Shapiro said. Merchandise assortments include casual leather goods from Frye, Streets Ahead and Latico; hats by Debbie Cohen, Louise Green, Ann Vuille and Tatiana; jewelry and watches by Sorelli, Roxanne Assoulin, Steven Greg and Ecclissi, and gloves by Carolina Amato. Accessories retail from $15 to $350.

Hair accessories are the chain's largest category with names like Ann Vuille, Head Dress, MeiFa and Imagine Me. Shapiro said she is in the process of developing lines of hats and other accessories under the Spangles name. Everyone on Shapiro's staff undergoes specialized training in how to use hair goods, and customers can arrange to have their hair styled with a particular item. Sales associates also keep logbooks to keep track of trends and items that customers are looking for.

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