Accessories vendors have had a rough year, but they’re armed with a handful of strategies aimed at recouping lost business.

The accessories arena is bursting with activity, and designers and companies of all sorts are stepping into the fray. Brands as diverse as JLo by Jennifer Lopez, Split, Ellen Tracy and Gloria Vanderbilt are among those either entering accessories or expanding into new product categories within the field.

These new introductions come at a somewhat challenging time in the fashion world. Although there are some signs that the economy is beginning to pick up, retailing remains difficult for many stores, and there has been a recent wave of mergers and store closings. Overall, however, accessories have remained a bright spot in the retail landscape. J.C. Penney, for example, has expanded its accessories area and taken away space from its beauty department, and other retailers, such as Macy’s East, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor continue to build and give more room to their assortments.

“It’s been a tough year, but with the market starting to rebound, we are seeing strength,” said jewelry designer Anne Koplik from Brewster, N.Y.-based Anne Koplik Designs. “Our sales so far this year are up over last year, and I am very positive about business now.”

Many accessories companies exhibiting at WWDMAGIC are using a variety of strategies to grow as they prepare for 2004. While many firms admit it’s been a difficult year, they are generally projecting solid gains for 2004, due to an improving economy and the continued strength of accessories. Here, a look at some of the strategies on tap:

  • BRANCHING OUT: A number of firms are entering new categories and starting new divisions as a way to extend their brand name and grow distribution. Betmar Hats, based in New York, for example, is expanding its junior offerings, hoping to tap into the lucrative teen market.

    “So many young celebrities, such as Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera, have been wearing hats, and that has really helped us grow this part of our business,” said sales executive Pamela Kessler. “It’s interesting because on the one hand, we are seeing more interest in dressy church hats, while at the same time, the casual end of the business and streetwear is an area of growth for us. We are really addressing juniors as a much more important customer than we have in the past.” She said the company is expanding its retail account roster to include teen-friendly stores such as Forever 21.Anne Koplik Designs is starting to focus more on watches and plans to introduce a number of new watch styles next year, according to Anne Koplik. “We are best known for our jewelry, but we see watches as a big growth area,” she said.

    The company currently has a selection of watches with jeweled faces and leather straps, and for spring, it will add jeweled bands as well as print straps in patterns such as stripes and checkerboard. Wholesale prices for the watches range from about $30 to $50. On the jewelry front, Koplik is growing her range of offerings with semiprecious stones, and she continues to build on her assortment of chandelier earrings, a strong trend in the accessories market.

    Hobo International, an Annapolis, Md.-based handbag and accessories firm, in the fall will launch at retail the “Women’s Executive Collection,” which includes Durafiber pieces with leather accents, including computer bags and backpacks. Wholesale price points for the line range from $19.50 to $82.50, while overall, prices range from $6.50 to $125.

  • NEW DISTRIBUTION: Seeking new retail channels is another strategy many accessories vendors are employing. J. Jansen Designs, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based jewelry firm, is looking to grow its business in boutiques and galleries, said designer Jody Jansen.

    “I have been in some galleries, but now I am looking at more higher-end ones,” she said. “Since my business has expanded into semiprecious and pearls, I am getting more interest from contemporary galleries.”

    She added, “Many people are looking for custom design and more unique products that aren’t available in department stores. I am also doing a lot more private showings and art showings so that I can keep my designs exclusive. I have found that people don’t mind paying for something that they feel is individual and well-made.” Jansen said she is expecting at least 10 percent growth this year.

    Deborah Lewis, a handbag and accessories firm based in San Francisco, is looking to build its business in gift and home stores. “This is a new strategy for us,” said Jonathan Lewis, a principal in the company. “We have found that a lot of interior decorating stores also carry accessories, which are sort of an add-on category.”Lewis said fall will be the first season that the collection will be carried in such stores. “This is a good avenue for us since these stores know how to display merchandise and our product lends itself to places where art and high-end products are sold.” The company’s leather handbags range from about $60 to $175 wholesale.

  • NEW PRICING STRATEGIES: Some firms are counting on new pricing techniques to help them achieve their growth goals. Sun Palace Fashions, a New York-based accessories firm, is focusing on more expensive products such as accessories with rabbit fur trims.

    “For us, higher-end luxury items are doing better than lower-end,” said Jennifer Marun, vice president of sales. “A few years ago, we didn’t do furs, and now that has become an important part of our business. We have moved up.”

    Sun Palace’s hair accessories now have rabbit fur, and its scarves and shawls have mink pom-poms on the end. The line carries wholesale price points ranging from $1 to $100, she noted.

    Hobo International is also working to maintain its prices. “Price point is an issue,” said Schroeder. “We have not lowered our price points, but we have stayed consistent, and we are trying harder than ever to maintain our price points.” Hobo’s wholesale price points range from about $6.50 to $125.

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