SPRING OFF TO A BRISK START AT RETAIL COUNTERS

Byline: Wendy Hessen and Amanda Meadus

NEW YORK--Spring has definitely sprung at retail for accessories. Riding the crest of a fairly successful Christmas season, accessories has been one category also experiencing an early start for spring.
Jewelry, which suffered through a long dry spell, has rebounded, largely on the strength of the now-ubiquitous Y-necklace, although the intense consumer interest in the minimal-looking necklaces has also sparked a desire for matching earrings. Sterling silver and bridge-level merchandise has also started to perk.
Scarves are getting early action, driven by the resurgence in color--from pastels to brights--and by trends that surfaced in ready-to-wear, including silk shantung textured fabric and safari looks that have driven sales for animal prints.
Following is a spot check of what's selling, and where.
"So far, so good," said Rob Goldfarb, accessories merchandise manager at Henri Bendel, noting spring looks to be a healthy one for accessories, especially if the current pace continues.
Three categories--jewelry, belts and scarves--have taken an early lead, Goldfarb said.
The store's own line of sterling silver status link bracelets, necklaces and earrings was one of the first areas to drive spring business, particularly popular for Valentine's Day, he said.
"The sterling silver links have addressed a demand for status looks that are slightly bolder, as well as being more valuable than costume jewelry," said Goldfarb.
Chain looks have also been a driving force in belts, as have hip-slung styles, which the store is carrying in a variety of leathers.
"Scarves are definitely a key category for spring also," Goldfarb said. "They are now being driven by texture and color."
Bandannas have been a hot item for some time at Bendel's, and they have continued popular in the latest fabrications and colors. Silk shantung is a key textured fabric, especially in bright colors, whereas pastels have been strongest in chiffons.
Goldfarb said that as the season progresses, different fabrications will be offered with more open, net-type materials, and in even brighter colors.
Sunglasses and scarves are the early leaders at Neiman Marcus, according to Julee Butler, vice president and divisional merchandise manager.
"Sunglasses are hotter than ever, and we're doing particularly well with the new Gucci line, which will be expanded to all of our doors throughout the spring," she said.
Butler said the store changed its scarf-buying strategy to deliver more of a trend presentation, which has really attracted consumer attention. Each trend offers a variety of vendor and designer resources and price points. Key trend groups thus far include a black-and-white story, an animal print theme and a group featuring the latest bright colors.
Jewelry has been another strong category, driven by established resources for Neiman's, including Lagos, David Yurman and John Hardy. Newer lines in 18-karat gold from new designers like Bettina Duncan and Dana Kellin have also been turning in strong early spring performances.
Accessories merchandise managers for Federated Merchandising, the buying arm for Federated Department Stores, said jewelry is doing particularly well.
While Y-necklaces and rosary styles dominate the fashion segment, the fast pace of business has also helped spur sales of earrings, sales of which accompany sales of matching necklaces almost every time.
Top trends include blackened metal and neutral-colored beads or stones in jet, garnet or clear. In recent weeks, sales of pastels have picked up.
All the action with Y-necklaces has served to attract consumers to other areas of Federated's jewelry departments. Mixed metals and the look of fine jewelry have seen increases in the costume segment; sterling silver, gold vermeil and cubic zirconia looks are leading in the bridge area.
Sunglasses have also been strong, with increasesfrom Guess, Fossil, Jones New York, DKNY and Anne Klein. Sport wraps are the hot new silhouette.
Career looks are driving belt business from brands such as CK by Calvin Klein, Anne Klein and Liz Claiborne. Chains are the strongest new style.
Short shoulder bags, slings and structured suit bags are the key silhouettes for the handbag classification at Federated, across a variety of price points and from vendors ranging from Esprit to Ralph Lauren and DKNY.
"Of all the classifications, jewelry and watches have been the strongest, with each registering increases in the midteens since the beginning of the year," said Dave Harris, senior vice president/general merchandise manager, Carson Pirie Scott.
He said fashion and bridge areas alike have been performing well, with the costume portion of the business driven by Y-necklaces--the so-called "Melrose Place" and "Friends" looks.
Harris said the bridge segment has also produced action for Y-necklaces, as have styles with marcasite or cubic zirconia in either silver or gold.
Fashion watches, which had a great Valentine's Day, have been doing somewhat better so far this year than they did in December. Top performers have been Anne Klein II; metal strap styles from Fossil and Guess, and the licensed Betty Boop line from Fossil.
"At this point, there isn't any classification that isn't up from the same time last year," said Gail Brail, accessories buyer at the Florida division of Jacobson's.
The biggest gainers include dressy and casual straw hats, up 90 percent so far this month, compared with the year-ago period, and belts, up 18 percent.
Brail attributes part of the growth to sticking with the things that work for her stores' specific market in Florida, rather than taking what the market was offering for fashion's sake.
She said another area of strength has been sterling silver jewelry, led by Zina, Athra Trading, Simon Sebbag, Sierra and Cherie Dori. Much of the action has been from $200 to $500, with key items being rings and pieces that mix sterling and gold. Pearls have also continued to perform well, Brail said.
"Overall, fashion jewelry sales so far this year are about even with the same period last year," said Patty Denton, fashion jewelry buyer, at the Michigan division of Jacobson's.
"However, we're up against some pretty decent numbers because we had a slew of markdowns last year. This year, we tried to buy smarter and haven't had the same markdowns."
The Y-necklace is still the chain's number one seller, outpacing everything else, but Denton noted that "it's a destination item, something people come into the department for and once there, they also end up buying other jewelry."
Most of Jacobson's Y-necklaces retail for under $100.
Another strong item has been fashion rings with single or multiple stones in a variety of colors, and Denton said sterling silver also continues to trend up.

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