Byline: Alice Welsh Doyle

If you can’t beat them, outclass them.
Specialty stores are “trading up” to bring in tonier accessories lines at the bridge-to-designer level, in part to answer encroachment from bigger retail players.
Right now, there’s plenty to support their strategy, with luxe looks powering the accessories market, a strong economy and customers demanding quality over low price points.
“Specialty stores want special, one-of-a-kind items — not promotional items, because they can’t compete with the department stores on that level,” said Barry Kramer, vice president of sales and marketing for the Inge Christopher handbag line. “They have identified a customer base in the better areas and are really doing due diligence to pick the right items.”
“Retailers are tired of trying to compete with department stores and Wal-Mart, and they’re going to better merchandise,” agreed Paula Dawkins of the DCI accessories showroom in Atlanta’s America’s Mart Apparel.
Dawkins is doing well with lines such as Longchamp, Kenneth Jay Lane and Judith Jack. She finds little price resistance to the more expensive items, such as Longchamp’s larger luggage styles, which wholesale up to $450, or a $215 semiprecious necklace from Kenneth Jay Lane.
Jewelry designer Andrea Barnett said that interest in $16 earrings is at a new low. “When buyers come in, it’s ‘Don’t show me anything under $100,”‘ she said. The Dallas-based Barnett’s fashion line wholesales up to $150, with a median price point around $60. She has started investing in designs that cost 25 to 30 percent more than those she’s carried in the past.
Price is not the issue, confirmed Elayne Leshtz, owner of an eponymous accessories showroom in the Chicago Apparel Center. Her bridge-to-designer lines include Marjorie Bear, a San Francisco-based jewelry line, Red Fish scarves and Christian Livingston beaded handbags. “[Buyers] are looking for quality, and with so much product out there, they want to distinguish themselves.”
Inge Christopher’s Kramer said business has increased 56 percent this year. “I can’t remember when someone last said, ‘I love it, but it’s too expensive,”‘ he said.
“Every place has cheap jewelry and discounted things,” said Linda Muller, owner of Arlington House in Greenville, N.C. “My customer is looking for uniqueness.”
Muller, who carries Kenneth Jay Lane, Judith Jack and Frenchy of California handbags, said she’s doing especially well with bigger jewelry and lots of color.
Though trading up is definitely the trend of the moment, retailers are still buying less expensive items that appeal as impulse buys, like the $6.50 decorated shrine boxes that Janet Arnell-Richardson sells at Mooncake, her Atlanta boutique. She’d rather take the something-for-everyone approach: “We’ll have a diamond and platinum toe ring for $210, and then others that sell for as little as $8.”
“I’ve always carried a lot of accessories in all price points,” said Taffi Perkins of T. Perkins in Ponte Verde Beach, Fla. While she’s seeing a great response to Suzi Roher’s more expensive belts, which retail from $140 to $170, she’s also selling Theory’s belts, which start at half as much.
Still, the products with a unique flair are the ones speaking loudest to retailers this season.
“We are really buying and selling items with a special look,” explained Nancy Bowers, an owner of Summerville Rags in Augusta, Ga. Bowers likes Longchamp, and this season, she’s bringing in the company’s luggage. She also does well with Moo Roo, a collection of handmade bags from a Charleston designer that retail from $350 to $600, and with Cilla hand-screened silk and velvet scarves, which sell for $140 apiece.
“Buyers are attracted to [strong] design elements,” agreed Susan Berman, vice president of Bag Stage, the maker of Franchi handbags. Franchi’s daytime looks wholesale from $35 to $85, while the evening line ranges from $22 to $42. Bag Stage also holds the Cynthia Rowley handbag license, with wholesale prices coming in between $60 and $150. “It’s not your basic black microfiber anymore,” noted Berman. Her bestsellers include standouts such as Franchi’s shiny gold bags made of plastic and Cynthia Rowley’s metallic-wash croc-patterned clutch. “When it’s the right product at the right time,” Berman said, “you don’t have to hit a specific price point.”
Perceived value is key, said Dana Melton, co-owner of the Lori Veith showroom. “Price is less a concern when the object is beautifully made. Ornamented and embellished accessories are very strong.”
Many are counting on a high-glam factor to drive sales. “I invested more dollars in accessories because there was such glitz and glamour there, which we haven’t seen in a while,” said Judy Scheck, owner of Judy’s Boutique and Shoe Inn in Northbrook, Ill. Brighton belts,which retail from $150 to $300, and bags, $40 to $100, are high performers for Scheck.
Toronto-based belt designer Suzi Roher, who’s represented by the Lori Veith showroom in Atlanta, noted that her customers are showing strong interest in “gold hardware, rhinestones, textured ostrich, whipstitching, beading and color.” Roher, whose belts wholesale between $70 and $85, will also do custom work for specialty stores, allowing them to choose their own distinctive palettes.
In markets around the country, the trade-up trend is extending to areas such as hats, shoes and housewares. Hat designer Kokin picked up 14 new accounts when the line, which wholesales from $80 to $100, was shown in Atlanta for the first time last month. That doubled the number of clients, according to Diane McDowell, Kokin’s Atlanta representative.
Lawrence Franz, vice president of sales and marketing for Kokin said, “Our number one seller was a packable UltraSuede style, which wholesales between $80 and $140.”
The bottom line on accessories, regardless of the price tag? “The markup is usually higher than on garments, and they’re easy to sell,” said Chris Sheppard, vice president of Kenneth Jay Lane. “And in our experience, they don’t sell any faster because they’re on sale.”

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