MEGA NICHERS EYE THE MAIN FLOOR

Byline: Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — The look of main-floor accessories departments is in for a dramatic change.
The development of multiproduct shops by Mega Niche brands is under way at Ralph Lauren and Guess, according to both companies, and others are likely to follow.
While many of the big brands already have significant accessories businesses, they haven’t yet combined all of their accessories products into one unified shop.
Such a scenario has industry executives apprehensive.
They wonder whether main floors will take on bazaar-like atmospheres, loaded with one brand name shop after another, leaving diminished space and dollars for small but innovative designers or even for large, single-classification firms.
As reported, Lauren — whose accessories business surpassed an estimated $300 million at retail in 1995 — plans to roll out 150 in-store, multiple-classification accessories shops and as many as 350 “enhanced visual-presentation” areas worldwide next year, according to John Idol, Lauren’s group president for domestic licensing.
Idol said the shops — averaging 350 square feet — will include as many product classifications as possible. The enhanced visual areas will be in stores where a full-fledged shop isn’t possible, but will offer more than one classification, mixing scarves and jewelry, for instance.
At Guess, according to Ken Duane, president of worldwide sales and marketing, main floor accessories shops are scheduled to be launched in the second half of 1997.
“It’s a great opportunity for leveraging of the brand,” Duane said. “The critical issues are capacity and productivity per square foot of the fixtures, and you must stay within the main floor environment.”
As to how an influx of big name shops will affect the smaller players, Duane said the competitive climate is good for everyone and just raises the level of play. People, he said, will adjust accordingly.
“Today it’s more about the ability to execute and turn on a dime. You don’t have to be a big guy to do that,” Duane said. “In fact, sometimes it’s easier for the smaller firms to react quickly.”
While Donna Karan has no immediate plans for accessories boutiques, Joseph Cicio, Karan’s president of retail development, said, “There is no question that accessories are an opportunity where there is brand recognition.”
The concept, he said, could be a natural option for the firm’s designer collection or its bridge DKNY line, both of which include nearly every accessory product category.
“This takes a lot of pressure off the stores,” Cicio said. “The major designers all have incredible identities and they could provide the merchandising and design support — it’s a no-brainer at that point.”
He supports the idea that if other major brands open shops, the competition would force a strong focus on product development.
He also reasoned that since many of the Mega Nichers’ accessories are licensed through key industry firms, whatever space those companies might lose to the majors would be made up for by increased presentation of their licensed collections.
Others, like Liz Claiborne’s president of accessories, Carol Hochman, think the idea is impractical in terms of day-to-day business for stores.
“When we first went into the accessories business, we thought [boutiques] were a great idea, but they didn’t work because consumers want to buy belts, for example, in the belt department and scarves in the scarf area,” said Hochman.
She added that there were other issues for stores to address. Among them: What would happen to specialty lines and private label? How would the visual display people reconcile each brand’s individual image and look with the rest of the department?
Still, she conceded that the idea — for vendors — is enticing.
“The opportunity to own my own space and control it is definitely an up-side,” said Hochman. “You tell the message as you want to tell it, and hearing the response directly from consumers would also help.”
She said if a serious trend toward branded shops took hold, it could trigger a rethinking of the current Liz Claiborne concept shop program. The company has 350 Liz handbag and small leather goods shops across the country now and opened 150 shops this year for its Leather Co. division alone.
What effect multi-classification shops will have on consumers, rather than vendors, is the real issue for some.
“There is a customer that is interested in accessories as a whole who will not be served if [big brand boutiques on the main floor] were to become pervasive,” said Kenneth Cole, president and chief executive officer of the accessories and footwear firm bearing his name. “They would have to wander from shop to shop to find what they want. On the other hand, there are truly brand-loyal customers, who would be best served in that environment.”
Cole said his own and other companies could probably exist in both scenarios, because “as sportswear has taught us, there is a place for both.” In fact, he said if anyone were to have an edge, it’s the small vendors.
“The little guy probably benefits, because as you break out the designers and put them in their worlds, the small firms have more opportunity to shine within their own classifications,” Cole said.
Overall, he said, immediate, sweeping changes are unlikely.
“These concepts are much easier said than done. Each product has its own set of merchandising, display, back stock and staffing requirements. It’s very hard to coordinate multiple products in one point of sale,” Cole said.
In addition to its own accessories, Nine West Group produces the licensed CK Calvin Klein accessories line and will be opening CK accessories retail stores. Executives of Calvin Klein declined to comment for this article, but Noel Hord, president of Nine West, had mixed feelings on the idea of multi-product in-store shops.
“I think there’s no question brands are a draw for stores now and represent added value,” said Hord. “We know that women are spending less time in stores shopping today and that they demand convenience as well as selection and brands. To have some way to show accessories as a complete statement is very positive.”
However, he pointed out, it is difficult to set up complete multi-product shops the way stores operate by classification today.
What is possible, he said, is to pull some classifications — such as handbags and small leather goods — together in the accessories area and repeat them in another area like footwear.
“There is value in showing how products work with each other,” Hord noted. And he added that stores could give in to more multi-product shops, “if the consumer shows that she has become singularly focused on brands and likes shopping in a multiple classification setup.”
Uri Alter, owner of Apropo, an accessories sales representative firm, has built his business on small, yet sophisticated and innovative lines. While acknowledging that he was greatly concerned when he first heard about the big brands and their shop plans, he now says he’s no longer as anxious.
“I got really worried when I started hearing a lot of talk about brand names, especially from sophisticated stores that don’t usually focus too much on the big mainstream brands,” Alter said. “But at the end of the day, most stores have also realized that they can’t give up unique, special merchandise in favor of the big brands.
“The category as a whole is becoming so strong now, the big brands are just another trend. It’s really more about personal style in America now than just a brand. I’ve found that our buyers are looking to create personal style options for their customers, regardless of whose name is on the product.”
Janet Goldman, an owner of Fragments, a design-driven jewelry showroom, said there’s room for everybody and “setting up many classifications in an area won’t compete with us as specialists in jewelry.”
“If we focus on our product, we have more to offer than someone who has many categories,” she added. “Being able to continuously bring in newness is tough for the big brands, whereas we have a more entrepreneurial spirit that they can’t take a risk on.”
Goldman subscribes to the idea that changes are good for the accessories industry as a whole.
“All these creative adventures that the big names do are good, because it drives the business forward,” she said. “Seeing accessories from the big names which consumers are familiar with could make them think about accessories more.”

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