GETTING IN TOUCH ON THE MAIN FLOOR

Byline: Amanda Meadus and Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — Accessories companies are just as interested as anyone else these days in reaching out and touching the market’s most powerful segment — the consumer.
Now more than ever, vendors are trying to tap into the consumer psyche, via structured programs such as personal appearances, in-store promotions and trunk shows, as well as through more informal methods, some as casual as hanging out at the sales counters and talking to customers. Some vendors have taken the ultimate step in consumer communication by opening their own stores. While this is a growing trend, only a small number of U.S. resources have taken this step, particularly in comparison with accessories makers in Europe, where this is a much more common practice.
Whatever the means, however, most executives are quick to stress the fact that the days of vendors staying sequestered in showrooms and relying completely on the stores to sell the goods is long over.
“If you’re in the accessories business, even when things are going well, you can never sit back and say, ‘Let the stores do it,”‘ noted Elaine Gold, designer and owner of scarf firm Collection XIIX. “We are, after all, selling items that are basically nonessentials, as opposed to things such as clothes and shoes that people do need.
“I’ve always felt it was the manufacturer’s responsibility to get out in the stores and really sell the merchandise,” Gold said, adding that she always does at least one or two department or specialty store personal appearances every season to show her firm’s products, which include licensed Anne Klein, Ellen Tracy and Robert Lee Morris scarves as well as her own signature line.
“Most consumers definitely don’t know what they want,” Gold noted. “At most, someone might know she wants a scarf to dress up a suit, but beyond that, most people are at a loss. And if someone — either a trained sales associate or a vendor like myself — isn’t there to guide her, that’s a major problem.”
Jay Feinberg, designer and president of fashion jewelry firm Jay Strongwater, said he has kept a sporadic schedule of personal appearances in the past, but plans to firm up his agenda this year to include eight to 10 of them every season.
In addition to the fact that an appearance can generate as much as $5,000 in sales, Feinberg said he finds it a prime opportunity for marketing and forecasting.
“Sometimes I’ll bring in merchandise that is scheduled for deliveries later in the season, just to see what customers think, or I’ll test certain pieces that the store may have felt were a little too expensive or fashion-forward for its customers,” Feinberg said. In some cases, he said, buyers have adjusted their orders to include additional pieces based on reactions at a store appearance.
Merchants themselves say they like the results they get from designer appearances, and some noted that they have consequently developed well-rounded schedules of them.
Henri Bendel, for instance, tries to schedule weekly personal appearances in its jewelry department, both to sell inventory already on hand as well as test out new lines, according to Rob Goldfarb, merchandise manager for fashion accessories. Bendel’s also holds such events in millinery, scarves, hair accessories and handbags.
In addition, some store executives say that consumers are showing an increasing curiosity about accessories designers.
In the case of big-ticket items, such fine-jewelry-designer appearances at specialty and fine jewelry stores are a common practice.
“The stores make a big investment in the merchandise, and they want to be sure that it sells, so the designer has to take on that responsibility to at least some extent,” said fine jewelry designer Henry Dunay, who maintains an annual schedule of 30 or more appearances done both in and outside the U.S.
“The customer is also spending a lot of money, so that person also wants to know how the piece is made, how it should be worn, what can be worn with it and so on,” Dunay said. “Doing appearances is hard and it can get really grueling. There’s no question about that. But it does open up a fantastic opportunity to literally carve out your own customer base if you’re willing to put the time into it.”
Dunay noted that he also puts much effort into attracting new customers, often by tying appearances into charitable fund-raising events, rather than relying solely on an established consumer following.
“In this business, it’s absolutely necessary to generate new clients continually,” he pointed out. “Yes, some people come back every time to buy whatever is brand new, but not everyone buys a piece of fine jewelry every season.”
Fashion jewelry firm Carolee Designs also gears some of its 12 to 15 annual designer appearances around causes such as breast cancer awareness.
“Women will come out for a cause, and that creates opportunities for many things,” said designer Carolee Friedlander. In some cases, Friedlander donates a certain portion of the day’s sales to the cause itself.
“Personal appearances wind up being a combination of reaching out to the customer and solidifying our relationship with the store,” she noted. Friedlander also is one of the small group of vendors who are involved in their own retail operations. Her firm operates two regular price stores and one outlet store.
Fashion jeweler Erwin Pearl is another vendor into retailing. As reported, his firm, which carries his name, will open its first store later this month in New York. As for personal appearances, though, Pearl said that while he does about four appearances a year, “mostly I find them to be too set up and staged to be of much help.”
Pearl said he prefers to make frequent, unannounced visits to stores around the country.
“The way I get my best information is by standing at the counter where my merchandise is and starting up a conversation with a customer about the jewelry,” he said. “Then, once a rapport is established, I will introduce myself as the designer.”
Pearl said he finds out most things “indirectly, by the process of asking a lot of questions and trying to narrow down the responses to figure out exactly what it is a customer does want.
“People generally don’t have a difficult time saying what they don’t like, but if a woman says she doesn’t like button earrings, she doesn’t like small earrings and she doesn’t like dangling earrings, does that necessarily mean that she does like hoop earrings? These are the types of things you have to figure out,” Pearl said.
Pearl and others emphasized the fact that they also work with store sales associates, both to train them in selling the merchandise and glean clues from them as to what people are looking for.
“Those people who work behind the counters are a crucial link for us,” he said.
While some of the industry’s larger companies don’t always have a specific designer to present to the public, they also maintain brisk schedules of in-store events and promotions. Watch firms such as Fossil and Swatch are among the more active in their classification, and in fashion jewelry, The Monet Group frequently runs programs to draw attention to its Monet, Trifari and Marvella brands.
Steffie Kirschner, director of creative services for The Monet Group, said that while the events are held to generate publicity and brand awareness, they also serve as useful forums for getting information from shoppers.
“We conduct a lot of how-to seminars where we update people on new fashion trends as well as what’s new in our lines, and that obviously helps give us direction as far as what consumers are looking for and what kinds of information they need from us,” Kirschner said.
However, for major manufacturers who must plan their merchandise motifs sometimes as far out as nine months before season, conducting research through focus groups is often a necessity. Firms using these include Monet and Aris-Isotoner.
However, there are those who feel they are a major waste of time, money and effort.
“Conducting focus groups and doing background research and paying a ton of money to someone who will do all this for you is fine if you’re launching a commodity, a new food product or something of that nature,” said a marketing executive from one major accessories firm who asked not to be named.
“But when you’re in the fashion business, your direction has got to come from the gut, and you’ve got to be in touch with what’s going on right now, with what people of all ages and backgrounds are going to be looking for in the store next week, not what they wanted two years ago,” he added.
Accessories and shoe designer Kenneth Cole said he doesn’t even believe in taking the personal appearance and trunk show route very often, “because the business and information gained just doesn’t warrant the expense of doing these events, if, that is, you’re going to do them right.
“Besides, consumers aren’t given enough credit for knowing what they want,” Cole added. “Personally, I gain a lot of insight simply by watching what women on the street are wearing.”

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