By  on June 30, 2008

There was barely any change in spending habits among U.S. accessories shoppers between this year and last, with the $31 billion category appearing to be almost immune to the vagaries of the economy. There was only a marginal 1 percent drop in the number of people who bought accessories in 2008 over 2007, and the biggest individual change in the category comes in a small spike — 3 percent — of consumers shopping over the Internet or through catalogues.

The reason, observers say, is simple: Accessories represent an easy way to update a look at prices from mass to high-end, and they are also an avenue for the aspirational shopper to reach higher and obtain a piece of a designer label.

"Sales of accessories have gotten better in comparison to sales of apparel and even footwear," said Andrew Jassin, managing director and a founder of the Jassin-O'Rourke Group, a strategic consulting firm in New York. "They are easier purchases and can be worn with more types of products. And in a climate where people are buying conservatively, accessories are a solid purchase, whether that's handkerchiefs and scarves or jewelry and bags."

A plurality of respondents — 31 percent — said they shopped primarily at department stores, a figure that was 1 percent down from last year. That one point appears to have headed over to the neighborhood discounter, where 27 percent of respondents said they bought accessories. Specialty stores took up 19 percent, while about 13 percent of consumers bought online and through catalogues.

Of the shoppers, 27 percent did their accessories shopping at Wal-Mart, up one point over last year. Target was a close second, up 4 percent from 2007 with 26 percent of shoppers, with Kohl's, J.C. Penney, Macy's and Claire's trailing behind.

"Other than the true luxury customers, Americans shop not only in department stores and traditional discounters, but also in TJ Maxx and Marshall's for accessories," said Jassin.  "Clearly the lines of demarcation of where the product is found have changed dramatically."

Jassin added that the group of accessories consumers could be broadly split into several categories. First, there are those who simply want a luxury product and who shop exclusively at branded or upscale department stores."Then you have the aspirational customers who buy the brand but not a specific style, who frequent not just the department stores but also the discounters," he said.

And there are others who are "brand-centric" — whom he described as "not caring where they buy, they'll buy the brand anyplace. They are like trophy hunters, more than anything else."

Another thing to watch for in this economy: More products will be bought during sale season than at regular price.

Certainly, accessories shopping seems to inspire loyalty; the most frequented stores for accessories are Wal-Mart, Kohl's and Target, with 15 percent of respondents saying they shopped most often at Wal-Mart, up one point from last year. Kohl's was up a point to 13 percent and Target hopped two points to 11 percent.

That the accessories sector is holding its own is good news in an increasingly dismal market, where retailers across the board are citing dips in spending — and consequently, profits. Penney's saw profits fall 49.6 percent in the first quarter of this year over last, while the drop at Kohl's was 26.8 percent. Target profits fell 7.5 percent.

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