What do women really think about their accessories? Where do they prefer to buy them, and what are they willing to pay for them?
Accessories makers have long had a tough time pinning down answers to these and other important questions, especially since with nearly a dozen product classifications and multiple distribution channels, the business is virtually a statistical black hole.
Well, the Accessories Council decided to probe the darkness, via consumer research conducted by market intelligence firm The NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y. The answers they uncovered shed new light on the category and contain some surprises as well.
Among the unexpected findings: The discount distribution channel is source number one for most consumers; hair accessories, considered a slumping segment at present, are at the top of the shopping lists for younger women, and Gen X and boomer females pretty much like the same brands.
The results of the survey were unveiled at a recent Accessories Council event. Here, highlights from the research.

Who participated?
From its reserve of about 650,000 online panelists, NPD asked 11,000 women between the ages of 13 to 55 to share information about the accessories they purchased in the last six months. According to Nancy Van Patten, director of NPDAccessorywatch, respondents usually have about a week to complete the survey. She said the response rate for the accessories survey was uncharacteristically speedy, with 85 to 90 percent of respondents completing the survey within three to five days.
In return for participating, Van Patten said respondents have several chances to win a sweepstakes for a small monetary amount.
The demographic portrait of the respondents is wide-ranging: Forty-two percent were single and never married, 34 percent were married, 15 percent were divorced or separated and the remaining 9 percent were either widowed or in a domestic partnership.
As for age, 42 percent of respondents were described as baby boomers, between 35 and 55; 34 percent were Generation X, between 22 and 34, and 24 percent were tagged as Generation Y, aged 13 to 21. Most, 32 percent, came from households with incomes under $25,000, 29 percent had incomes between $25,000 and $49,000, 17 percent had incomes between $50,000 and $74,000, 12 percent had incomes from $75,000 to $99,000 and 10 percent had incomes over $100,000 annually. (See accompanying chart No. 1 for a further description of the generations.)
About one-fourth, 24 percent, were college graduates, another 26 percent had some college; 25 percent were high school graduates and 18 percent had not completed high school. Seven percent had graduate degrees.

What classifications were included?
NPD segmented accessories into 10 product areas: handbags, costume jewelry, sunglasses, fashion watches, hats/gloves/mufflers, wallets/change purses, hosiery, hair accessories, belts and scarves/shawls.

Where do they shop?
The expected range of retail channels — department stores, specialty apparel and accessories stores and national chains — were all tagged as accessories destinations for consumers, but so were discounters, drugstores, direct mail and the Internet. Somewhat surprisingly, discounters were by far the leading choice for the greatest number of consumers, a Van Patten offered a possible explanation: “Some of the mass market stores are new, and there is a sense, I think, that there is something going on there that is appealing to consumers.” (See chart No. 2 for more specifics.)

What are they buying?
When asked to list their top five classifications, it was less about which products were chosen than where they were ranked in importance. In fact, the same five products were listed as the most important by all three generations.
Even though hair accessories are currently thought to be in a bit of a fashion lull, they nonetheless turned up as the top category for both Gen Xers and members of Gen Y. Costume jewelry ranked number two for boomers and Gen Y, dropping to third for Gen X. Hosiery was number one for boomers, but progressed down the list as it reached the younger crowd. Gen X ranked hosiery second, and Gen Y placed it third. It would seem to indicate that the younger you are, the less need you have for sheer pantyhose or tights. Boomers and Gen Xers, who may be more inclined toward protection from the sun, both ranked sunglasses fourth, while they turned up as fifth for Gen Y. Handbags were fourth for Gen Y and rounded out the top five for Boomers and Gen Xers. (See chart No. 3)

How much are they willing to pay?
Despite all the talk about the hot segment of luxury goods, it seems that a good portion of America is still looking for a bargain. Regardless of the type of merchandise or the age group, the top average price for any of the 10 categories surveyed didn’t exceed $40.72, which was the average price paid for fashion watches. The lowest average price for an item, $4.76, was for hair accessories.
Depending on the item, some age groups were willing to pay more than others. Boomers would pay the most for sunglasses, $28.10, while Members of Gen Y would ante up $46.10 for a fashion watch and Gen Xers would pay $39.46 for a handbag. (See chart No. 4.)

The brand bandwagon
The store type and the price may be important, but to the consumer, so is the name on that accessory. Though they are the youngest shoppers, Gen Y members already exhibit highly developed preferences when it comes to brands, regardless of whether that brand really represents an accessories maker, a retail store or even a magazine.
Old Navy was mentioned as a top brand in five of the 10 product categories by Gen Y respondents, followed by Nine West, with four mentions; the Gap, with three, and Fossil and Claire’s specialty stores, each getting two mentions.
A bit surprisingly, Gen Xers and baby boomers shared the same preferences and also showed that with age comes a broader mind-set. While some of the same names had longevity for the older set, a variety of additional names appeared. Some, like Coach and Anne Klein, could be interpreted as representing maturing tastes, greater fashion sophistication and more robust pocketbooks as well. (See charts No. 5 and No. 6.)

What’s the reason behind the purchase?
While women usually consider the total offering before making a decision, accessories are still, more often than not, a spur-of-the-moment purchase. That said, there are specific reasons why they finally make that purchase. Some reasons, like No. 2, may send a chill through retailers and vendors alike. Many of the others, like Nos. 4, 9 and 10, actually bode well for the future of accessories. Here, the top 10 reasons for a selection:
1. It caught my eye.
2. It was on sale.
3. It’s appropriate for many occasions.
4. It’s a brand I trust.
5. It was original/different.
6. It goes will with an outfit.
7. It’s perfect for one special occasion.
8. It’s in style.
9. I bought it to match another accessory.
10. It makes me stand out from the crowd.

NPD is a leading marketing and information firm with more than 45 years’ experience conducting market research, assessing consumer behavior and tracking retail sales. The firm has more than 1,000 employees and offices in 36 countries covering such categories as apparel, fragrance and cosmetics, sports equipment, consumer electronics and appliances, toys and automotive products.

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