HANDBAGS AND SMALL LEATHER GOODS

It’s said a woman can never be too rich or too thin, and judging by the department store main floor, she can never have too many handbags.

While the overall department store business has struggled in recent years with declining traffic and growing competition from mass merchants like Wal-Mart and Target, handbags continue to be a bright spot and retailers devote a significant share of their main floor real estate to them. Market sources estimate annual sales at over $5 billion and the area continues to move along at a healthy clip despite the absence of a clear must-have look or shape to generate consumer interest.

Must-have or not, fall handbag trends include real or faux fur and python, pebbled or pearl-tone leather, fabric mixes such as tweeds and bouclé with leather for top-handle duffel handbags and wristlets, and Art Deco shapes and hardware. Colors range from magenta and violet to olive.

Main-floor players include Dooney & Bourke, Nine West, Etienne Aigner, Liz Claiborne, Cole Haan, Adrienne Vittadini and Francesco Biasia. Coach leads the pack when it comes to momentum by offering a coherent brand image at an accessible price, while being considered a luxury good in the consumer’s mind. Coach sales last year were $953.2 million, and for 2004 the company expects sales to be nearly $1.3 billion, representing year-over-year increases of 36 percent.

Other brands want a share of that pie: This year, the better tier is seeing some new main-floor entries, including Michael Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger’s H Hilfiger collection.

SUNGLASSES

Sunglasses are a hot commodity these days. High-profile fashion designers are jumping on the bandwagon with licensed lines, customers are increasingly treating sunglasses like an accessory they change with each outfit and when it comes to purchasing a pair of statement-making designer frames, women are willing to dig deeper into their pockets.

Accordingly, department stores are trying to capitalize on the area’s growth potential. When once they dismantled sunglass fixtures in favor of cold weather accessories come the first September chill, stores are now treating sunglasses as a year-round business.

Designer names such as Chanel, which is manufactured by Luxottica Group, and Gucci, by Safilo Group, dominate the better department store main floor, but the sector is getting crowded, and most design houses now offer a sunglass collection. Among them are Tommy Hilfiger, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Market sources estimate annual department store sales of sunglasses to be about $145 million — and growing.Currently, trends include colored lenses from pinks to violets and blues. For summer and fall, executives expect a return to darker lenses and oversized plastic frames.

HAIR ACCESSORIES

It’s been a tough time for hair accessories makers and few things point to an immediate uptick.

Until the mid-Nineties, hair accessories were a solid, main-floor business, with tortoise clips and hair bands a must-have item in every woman’s wardrobe.

But when business started heading south in the late Nineties, many department stores got out of hair accessories. The reason for the sales decline? As women started to embrace a less formal, more natural approach to career dressing, they packed up their hair bands, bobby pins and barrettes and stored them, along with their sheers and tights. Since then, hair accessories have become so unfashionable that HBO’s “Sex and the City” devoted an episode to scrunchies and how no cool girl would be caught dead with one.

All this is bad news for hair accessories makers, whose classification is estimated to rake in more than $300 million annually. With fewer department stores in the hair-goods business, they increasingly sell their accessories through pharmacies like Bigelow’s and Zitomer’s in Manhattan.

But not all hope is lost: The success of the brooch could potentially herald the return of ornate hair accessories.

COSTUME JEWELRY

Thanks to Nicole Kidman’s earrings at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards, chandeliers have become something other than expensive light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. Dangling chandeliers are still the best-selling shape on the main floor, but judging from the lobes of actresses such as Jennifer Garner and Charlize Theron on the red carpet this year, the trend is moving toward a longer and more linear silhouette, with single or multiple cascading drops.

When earrings become so prominent, the necklace business usually slows down, and this year is no different. That said, pearls, worn long around the neck, are getting some play due to the influence of the runway’s strong vintage looks for fall. Other hot trends are bold cocktail rings and cuff bracelets.

Among the key main-floor players in costume jewelry are Liz Claiborne, Monet, Carolee and Nine West.An area to watch is bridal jewelry. Companies such as Blair Delmonico and Bijoux Givenchy are getting in on thebridal business and launching wedding collections. Offering alternatives to traditional bridal boxed sets, they range from simple modern to ornate vintage.

FASHION WATCHES

Fashion watches are getting a boost as customers start purchasing more than one watch for their wardrobe. Major brands such as Fossil, Guess and Anne Klein are offering broad collections that cover trends from punk and surfer to tailored and technological. Because of the size of the collections, fashion watches are starting to command more space on the floor.

Strap designs vary from tough-chic oversized leather cuffs and Mod plastic bracelets to preppy striped ribbons. Metal bracelets are still a large part of sales and gold has yet to surpass silver or stainless steel as the top material.

Traditional men’s-style watches are treated with color and rhinestones to give them a feminine appeal. Overall, women’s watches have adopted a larger scale.

Color is brightening up cases for spring and is expected to do the same for fall. Pink performs well on a strap or dial and new fall hues include green, orange and white.

Styles have not been gimmicky or novelty-driven for the last few seasons, but now it seems fashion has a stronghold on watch trends. Apparel brands such as Esprit and Cerruti are launching watches in the coming months.

Prices hover around $65 to $100, but there is a more willing tendency among consumers to break the $100 barrier for better perceived value and quality.

BELTS

Judging by fashion indicators, belt makers should be able to breathe a sigh of relief this year. The belt business, once valued at over $600 million, has been challenging, but the fashion cycle could swing favorably to belts again.

With their feminine twist, the spring and fall sportswear collections should offer women enough reasons to take a closer look at the classification. Where once the belt would comfortably fit on the hips, designers are now suggesting them on the waist. For spring, women are already embracing thick belts from braided leather to striped ribbons and scarf looks. For fall, the belt will be a little more refined, whether it’s a narrow version to tie around a cardigan or a gold chain look that can accessorize a bouclé jacket.COLD-WEATHER ACCESSORIES

With the record chills across the country this winter, cold-weather accessories had a strong season despite the lack of standout trends. Thick cable knits and chunky ribs in all classifications sold in bright multicolored patterns and thick stripes, while bold solids performed well on scarves.

The long, skinny scarf trend fell by the wayside last winter as customers scooped up more standard-length, thicker styles. Perhaps attributable to the popularity of knitting as a hobby, handmade looks were popular for customers willing to spend more money and less time on their accessories.

Color also fueled glove sales. Lengths of leather and knit gloves ventured up the arm to the elbow.

Ponchos have been out of the spotlight for a few seasons, yet still continue to sell on the floor. Knits are both open crochets and tighter ribs. The cape is a new shape for fall.

SCARVES

In spring, every woman needs a scarf. Those who were part of last year’s boho-chic tribe and wore fringed scarves with abandon are likely to change their tune for spring and fall and take designers’ ladylike cues. A printed silk square worn loosely around the neckline accomplishes the look, and wrapping one around a purse handle has become an easily afforded status symbol.

Pattern trends for fall are bucking the ladylike idea. Graphic geometric prints in saturated colors have sold, as well as floral designs. Paisley prints in deep shades of burgundy, teal and green will also be contenders for counter space come autumn.

Shapes have become more modern to accommodate the different modes of wearing scarves and some firms like Echo have introduced feminine versions of men’s neckties.

— Marc Karimzadeh and Emily Holt

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