Accessories are a pretty easy sell, many vendors say, because they make for an easy wardobe add-on — a fact that helps the category fare better than others in the industry.

Halfway into the first quarter of the year, accessories vendors seem united on one point: Business has been good, and is poised to get better. Vendors of accessories in all categories — from handbags to hats and costume jewelry — cite double-digit increases over this time last year, and see no reason why there should be any dip in sales.

The reason for the bullish market? When money is tight, consumers would rather buy a new bag or shawl than a whole new outfit.

"Accessories in general are going to do well," said handbag designer Timmy Woods. "If people are not going to change their clothes, then they will at least accessorize."

Nonetheless, it’s not an easy market to stay on top of, with vendors grappling with a variety of issues and how best to deal with them.

BOOSTING SPIRITS AND SALES: In order to boost sales, designers are trotting out pieces aimed at lifting spirits —a mission well-received by a population coping with threats of war, terrorism and economic uncertainty.

"Anything floral and romantic is big right now," said Bryan Gage, national manager of Cape May, N.J.-based World End Imports. "All our shows this year have been successful so far, and there appear to be two driving ideas: value and uniqueness. Customers are looking for something that looks magical, and our products have more of an enchanted garden feel." He cited enamel, rhinestones, painted metals and motifs of lotus and posies as just some of the looks he expects to drive business. "As long as we stick with uniqueness, we can be successful."

Another New Jersey company, Marlboro-based Jewelry by Felicia, is also reaping the benefits of a population looking to be uplifted. Company owner Felicia Goldberg said fresh flowers laminated on shells and mystic "power" bracelets are some of the pieces buyers are snapping up. Wholesale prices range from $5 to $65.

Not only do shoppers get a mental boost by donning one of Goldberg’s pieces, they get a financial boost, as well. "Maybe people aren’t going out spending $50,000 on a diamond," she said. "But this type of purchase isn’t going to affect the consumer negatively. For $50 or under, it can be a beautiful necklace that will give them joy and make them feel good. Customers want a nice look at a good price, and there’s plenty to be found. They want to look like they are walking off the cover of Vogue."

HAT HAPPY: Accessories vendors whose core product offering happens to be one of the most sought-after categories are, not surprisingly, faring well.

"The hat market is growing, and is more and more a part of people’s wardrobes," said Teresa Gardner, president of the San Diego Hat Co. Gardner attributes this renewed popularity to celebrity culture — within which there are plenty of famous hat-wearers, including Alicia Keys and Kelly Osbourne — as well as increased public awareness of the dangers of the sun. "I try to pick materials and colors that will really appeal to people, but I make sure they are not too trendy." For fall, key looks include shades of olive and brown, as well as prints like stripes and polkadots. On the fabric front, cotton denim and lightweight cotton corduroy are also popular. "New shapes always come in, and we get some direction from fashion in general," Gardner said.

Vendors in the headwear category cite the affordability of hats as another factor. "It’s a feel-good purchase, and may remind people of better times," said John Brady, owner of the Shady Brady Hat Co. in Ukiah, Calif.?Business has been up 50 percent over the past year, he said. "A lot of it can be tied to the younger generation. They’re pro-hat, they’re daring, and they are wearing out in public new styles and trends in hats that make a statement. There is a lot of growth propelled by the youth market."

Increased awareness about sun damage has a lot to do with the growth, said Karla Willis, executive manager of San Diego, Calif.-based Hat Shack/Hat Stack, which has sold out of its first productions for spring. "Women are wearing bigger brims for added protection — especially after seeing Jennifer Lopez in a similar style," said Willis. Also new: the bucket silhouette and the newsboy. "Women want lighter-weight hats but still want protection," she said.

FASHION FIRST: The key to boosting business, many accessories designers have discovered, is to push fashion items rather than the basics.

"We knew we needed to move forward, to do something fun yet functional," said Ann Simmons, co-owner of Portland, Ore.-based Baggallini. In addition to basic black microfiber luggage pieces, the company is adding brilliant colors — lime, orange, turquoise — in ripstop nylon. The result: a 25 percent increase in sales so far. "It’s a new strategy for us, to take our best-selling items and to make them more fashion-forward." Wholesale prices have remained constant, ranging from $6 to $20.Similarly, Debbie Tierney, owner of Wethers Field, Conn.-based Joy Accessories, said even seemingly basic pieces — from handbags to shawls — need a little pizzazz to attract shoppers. "We’re using a lot of Asian influences, and since we started doing that, every show we’ve been to has been very busy," said Tierney. "The line is hot right now, and we have a great following."?Tierney uses shells from the Philippines as well as genuine stones from other Asian countries, to embellish scarves, bags and necklaces. She is also keeping prices affordable, while delivering a high-fashion look: the bags range from $9 to $12.50 wholesale.

Beverly Hills, Calif.-based handbag designer Timmy Woods is also expanding her fashionable wares, but keeping them priced low enough in order to capture price-conscious shoppers. "In addition to doing my wood collection, I have introduced a fabric line, featuring Hawaiian themes, decoration and baskets that are priced at around $36 wholesale. I brought them in exactly because I know the customer is now much more price-conscious."

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