NEW YORK -- Spring has already taken root in the accessories departments of several major retailers, and early season readings show sterling silver jewelry, hats, scarves, sunglasses and handbags emerging as winners.

Many stores have had resort and introductory spring merchandise out since before Christmas in order to get a jump on the season and catch the attention of holiday shoppers. For some, the strategy has proven successful.

Here's how the action shapes up in the departments of four major organizations.

SAKS FIFTH AVENUE

Jewelry, neckwear and millinery are showing early strength, according to Helen Welsh, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for accessories. Within these classifications, she said, the natural trend -- lightweight strands, crinkled fabrics and straw hats, all in neutral palettes -- is driving a lot of the business.

"The natural trend is one that a lot of women can relate to," Welsh said. "It's soft and simple. I think this spring will be better for accessories than last spring because last spring was the beginning of the whole Sixties look, which not as many people were comfortable with."

In addition, Welsh said Saks focused on making the transition into resort and early spring merchandise smoother and more gradual this year than it has in the past. In some locations, such as those in Florida, it started bringing out resort accessories in October, and it also mailed out a resort catalog in mid-November.

After a strong Christmas season, during which luxury items performed well, Welsh said she expects to see categories such as fine jewelry continuing to sell for spring.

"The intrinsic-value issue is still very important," she noted. "The consumer has come to realize that she can buy a nice piece of fine jewelry at the same price she pays for a jacket."

Saks' gold jewelry sales have been solid since before Christmas, Welsh said, adding, "But I think silver's going to be the hottest metal for spring."

HENRI BENDEL

The best checkouts so far on spring goods, introduced to stores last month, have been sterling silver jewelry, hair accessories and handbags, according to Rob Goldfarb, merchandise manager for fashion accessories.

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