Accessories are still one of the hottest-performing sectors in fashion, but like many other markets, the category has faced some tough times in recent months as the economic slowdown takes its toll.

Overall, many accessories companies are looking for ways to kick more life into the category this year, as novelty items are in demand by shoppers. Firms are using a number of strategies to build their business, from expanding distribution to lowering price points. A number of makers said they are branching out into new products for growth.

“During a recession, people tend to buy accessories,” said John Florin, vice president of marketing for Pine Brook, N.J.-based Westport Corp., a small leather goods company. “They are not going to spend money for a new wardrobe.”

Some accessories categories are poised to see a strong year ahead, as fashion tastes continue to shift and old product segments become interesting again. Hats, for example, which have seen strength in recent months, is a key area of focus for many vendors.

“It’s a good time to be in the hat business,” said Jeanne Simmons, owner of Hat Shack/Hat Sack, based in San Marcos, Calif. “Accessories are low-cost items that make people happy, so I think accessories are going to have a good year.”

Her five-year-old company is exploring some new fabrics, such as a paper and cotton combination, which is being used for both hats and bags.

The company is also rolling out some new categories, including a cold-weather accessories assortment featuring scarves and gloves.

At Heaslip, a Canadian hat firm based in Hamilton, Ontario, business has been strong, and the company expects continued strength heading into fall, said Bob Siegel, president and owner of the 16-year-old firm.

“Our spring business is way ahead of last year,” he said. “When times are tough, big ticket items tend to suffer more and small ticket items come to life.”

Siegel said his company is looking to broaden its distribution and has also added hats in new fabrics such as fake fur and commercial knits.

The company has also introduced items, including gloves, scarves and vests.

Changing price points is another important strategy this year at Heaslip.

“We are gearing ourselves to a younger market so we are carrying more moderate price points,” he said. Retail prices are now primarily in the range of $19.95 to $29.95, while before, the product spanned from $20 to $60.

At Westport Corp., a manufacturer and distributor of women’s and men’s leather goods and related accessories, adding new products is a key strategy this year.

“Small leather goods is an item-driven business, and is a good way for stores to expand on their existing businesses,” said vice president of marketing John Florin.

Florin said the company has added more business casual items, including computer cases and cell-phone holders.

“We are also exploring new channels of distribution, such as office supply stores,” he said. “Also, everyone needs to show identification at work, so we are pushing products that have a lariat attached,” he noted.

At Dorfman-Pacific Co. Inc., a hat and bag firm, leather is a key direction for fall, said designer John Callanan.

The Stockton, Calif.-based firm has also been expanding its offerings for women, a segment it entered into about seven years ago.

On the production side, the firm has to plan a little farther in advance, due in part to tighter security restrictions coming from overseas. Most of its production is done outside of the U.S.

“The wait is a little longer now, so we have to plan out a little further,” he said.

Another area of growth this year is private label. The firm currently produces hats for specialty chains, and it recently began adding more to this area of the business.

At Marlboro, N.J.-based Jewels by Felicia, key categories this year are chokers and bracelets, said owner Felicia Goldberg.

She is confident in the strength of accessories right now, despite the challenging economic picture.

“People like items that give them a little happiness,” she said. “They don’t think twice about picking up a bracelet that sells for $20.”

Goldberg is also trying to be even more price-conscious than usual this year and is keeping her wholesale price points in the range of about $15 to $45.

“No one wants to pay much for items now,” she noted. “They want a big bang for the buck.”