By  on February 14, 2005

Although accessories designers are newly embracing a more toned-down aesthetic, the category is still sparkling. Vendors across the board are citing impressive sales figures for the year past and the year going forward.

Many agree that a change in consumer spending habits has led to the category’s success. More customers are willing to splurge on both luxury and one-of-a-kind looks.

In addition to vendors pulling out all the stops in their product assortments, they also are focusing on customer service, in hopes of meeting deliveries closer to season.

IN THE LAP OF LUXURY

According to some vendors, consumers may have more disposable income these days for fashion items and accessories, primarily because they save money elsewhere. This is translating into a new emphasis on luxury in the market.

“People are buying a lot at stores like Costco, so that frees up more income to trade up,” said Mitchell Handler, director of sales and marketing North America for Francesco Biasia, an Italian handbag line that Handler described as “for the consumer who wants to trade up to a higher-quality, fashionable, luxurious product.”

Handler said 2004 was “a record year,” with sales that were close to 30 percent over 2003, which also was a record year.

“2005 will be better,” he said. “There might be a slowdown somewhat in the rate of increase, but there will still be an increase.”

The collection wholesales for between $90 and $135, and is currently in about 600 doors across the country.

“We’re really focused on the bridge price,” he said.

The company also has focused on signature details to make the brand more attractive, including adding proprietary hardware for its newest collections, with all linings and rivets registered, licensed and trademarked.

“The idea was to create a Francesco Biasia consolidated image,” Handler said. “Other brands have some direct identification with their image, and we were looking for that. Our focus has been to create a personality for the name that can be found easily in the product.”

Initial response to the new styles, according to Handler, has been encouraging. The line recently was unveiled at New York market week, and, said Handler, “there wasn’t a customer who didn’t purchase. That was a resounding vote of confidence.”PERSONALITY CONTEST

Accessories producers echoed Handler’s take on the turn toward luxury, but added that the trend is not only affecting price, but also design. The trick to boosting sales, they agreed, is not in appealing to the mass market, but in going in the opposite direction and providing almost couture-like accessories that consumers would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

“The major shift we’ve seen is that people are now looking for something unique,” said Judy Jansen, owner and founder of jewelry maker J. Jansen Designs in Costa Mesa, Calif. “You’ll either have the customer who wants 10 things for $1, or they’ll pay for a quality piece. It’s almost like there’s no in between.”

Jansen’s pieces are sometimes made from scratch out of blowtorched metals, and are embellished with mother-of-pearl, Swarovski crystals and semiprecious stones. In addition to necklaces, earrings and watches, she also offers cell phone holders and a small collection of bags, all of which range in price at wholesale from $30 to $185.

Response to the collection has been so strong this year that Jansen is expecting sales figures to double in 2005 over last year.

“All the importers are trying to compete with each other and a lot of the products are mass produced. There is the customer who wants that, but then there is also the customer who is willing to pay whatever it takes to get something uniquely different,” Jansen explained. “I think we’ll be seeing a major upswing in that end of the market.”

William Bianco, operating officer of L.A. bag maker Melie Bianco, agreed. “It’s not just about the price anymore,” he said. “If you cater to a trendy customer and boutique, then it becomes more about defining yourself.” 

His label’s line of fabric and velvet bags, which wholesale for between $15 and $18, have found a growing market, he said. “Business is increasing. People seem happy to shop and spend.”

Michelle Cravens, founder and owner of Yorba Linda, Calif.-based Michelle Monroe, a belt maker, also said the current buzzwords in the market are “unique and unusual.”“People are being more selective about what they’re buying right now,” she said. “They’re looking for something unique.” For her line, that translates into rhinestone-studded belts, but the stones are in her own design and all the leathers used are Italian. Most of the belts sell for $85 to $95 at wholesale, with the more exclusive ones going for $150.

“People look at them, see they’re something different and then might decide to try a few. That’s how the business will grow,” Cravens said.

Felicia Goldberg, designer and owner of Jewelry by Felicia, based in Morganville, N.J., described sales at a January trade show as phenomenal.

“Things have just been excellent,” she said. Like many other vendors, she admitted the biggest challenge is “coming up with new things to keep it exciting.”

“Product development is the major challenge,” she said. “The most important thing is to change all the time. You can’t stay stagnant, because if you stay stagnant, you lose.”

Goldberg also has opted to cover all her bases by making jewelry ranging in price at wholesale from $10 to $85. She’s decided to go with what she describes as “the girly girl” route for spring, with heavily encrusted chokers and long earrings in crystal and enamel. She said she also has had an enthusiastic response to a new line of organic jewelry made from natural materials such as shell and wood.

“All vendors seem to be saying the same thing, that business is good if you provide something different,” Goldberg said. “Accessories can make or break an outfit, and people are finally learning that.”

FULL SERVICE

Companies also are rolling out the red carpet to retailers in a bid to boost sales. This includes having the merchandise on hand so that they are able to efficiently take and ship orders. 

“We want to focus on customer service and inventory. That seems to be where you can keep the customer,” said Karla Willis, marketing and sales manager of Hat Stack Jeanne Simmons Accessories, a maker of hats based in Vista, Calif.Willis said 2004 proved to be a strong year for the company, and she is looking forward to more of the same this year with a collection that includes hats made from classic tweeds and accented with ribbons and bright colors.

“Everybody tends to have the same sort of thing, or eventually will,” she said, “so what makes a difference is being able to ship the goods out on time.”

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