NEW YORK — The enthusiasm of high-income women for luxury accessories keeps growing despite the difficult economy, but the same cannot be said about luxury apparel.

According to a Banc of America Securities survey of 32 women participating in four focus groups, luxury handbags and shoes have benefited from an increasing penchant among women to cross-shop while budgetary constraints and a fear of overly trendy dressing have tended to limit their interest in luxury apparel lines.

The four sessions, split between here and Chicago, included women ranging in age from 30 to 50 years old with incomes between $100,000 and $500,000.

According to Banc of America softlines retail analyst Dana Cohen, luxury leather goods win points for flexibility and for their ability to dress up or even elevate other components of the wardrobe, even with the economy suffering.

One Chicago focus group participant noted, "If you have cheesy shoes or a cheesy purse, then that finishes it — it’s a bad outfit." Another woman from the Windy City observed that she felt guilty about her wardrobe "only when I am forced to take inventory." A New Yorker pointed out, "accessories can dress up any outfit."

Casualization, the analyst wrote, seemed to be a linchpin in the accessories cycle. Women want a luxury handbag or pair of shoes to wear with better or bridge apparel. Even today’s emphasis on jeans is helping to change the way women shop.

"Most women loved the idea of mixing a Gucci handbag or loafers with Gap jeans and a T-shirt. They felt that high-end shoes and handbags could elevate a moderate outfit and make it look more expensive," Cohen observed.

If not always reflected in their purchasing, the economy was very much on the minds of the women surveyed. Many of the participants didn’t expect to see an economic improvement in the near term. Most thought the situation would improve over the next year or two, but a few said they thought the economy could get worse before it got better. Several were concerned about their own job security, and a few had been laid off.

Regardless of their outlook, however, the women were willing to spend on classic, timeless merchandise and quality service."We heard a lot about the importance of a brand standing behind its product," Cohen reported. "This seemed to be a function of the economy as women wanted something that lasts. They seemed willing to pay more for timeless merchandise that transcends seasons and trends."

The analyst noted that for many women, there was an emotional tie to luxury shopping because it made them feel better. Nearly all of the focus group participants said they shopped for fun and enjoyed making their purchases.

Many were trading down in terms of brand or price point. Others were buying the same or better-quality, albeit fewer, items. Many of the women who would have bought two handbags at the same time in the past said they were buying just one, but at a higher price.

The thirst for footwear remains unquenched. "From Gucci to Prada to Manolo Blahnik, shoes were a bit of an obsession for some of our women. At the very least, most women like shoe shopping more than apparel shopping and felt that shoes could make a difference in an outfit," Cohen wrote.

Perhaps the biggest deterrent to buying from high-end apparel collections was the feeling expressed by several participants that the "luxury apparel lines were a bit outlandish and not quite conservative enough for their tastes," the analyst noted.

The women surveyed said they preferred to shop at department stores, rather than at a stand-alone luxury shop, although several lauded Coach’s stores. Retailers cited as destination stores were Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s.

According to Cohen, many women favored the customer service at Saks. While Neiman’s was often thought of as a step above and the premier shopping destination in Chicago, there were "complaints about ‘snobby’ salespeople" at the upscale retail chain.

Well-heeled shoppers in Chicago and New York favored Prada, but for different reasons. Viewed by all four groups as a place for handbags and shoes, but not apparel, Prada was targeted by New Yorkers for its fashion-forward product while Chicagoans favored the traditional black styles.

"Most women felt the clothes [at Prada] were a bit outrageous," Cohen wrote.Tiffany was where participants shopped for wedding gifts, but not for their jewelry. Cohen’s research indicated that women found the precious jewelry "too expensive," and that many women in the "lower-income bracket talked about going to Tiffany for ideas, but not to purchase."

While Gucci was viewed as a respected brand for quality handbags and footwear, such as the traditional loafers and some of the sexier shoe lines, most did not wear Gucci apparel.

Despite a few negative comments about "too much logo," Louis Vuitton was another top destination in-store shop brand. Coach received some similar criticism, although the specialty firm garnered positive feedback for its shoes, and for quality, service and durability.

Another negative comment concerned the signature Burberry plaid, although most women felt that the brand represented quality merchandise that would last. The problem, according to Cohen’s report, was that "some were sick of the plaid and felt like it was ‘everywhere.’ They were especially sick of the knock-offs."

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