Accessories vendors are in a bit of a quandary these days: Stick to the same thing and they risk losing their trend-savvy customers, but branch out into unfamiliar territory and they could lose them anyway.
Although executives at leading accessories brands were all in agreement that the category is booming — most of them reported at least double-digit growth over the past 12 months and said they have no reason to expect less in the foreseeable future — they said they are treading a fine line, trying to give the customer the novelty she seeks without alienating her. And there are other challenges: adapting to a new retail landscape as major stores and discount chains swallow up the independents, being able to guarantee quick deliveries and finding a way to define oneself in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
“Our biggest challenge right now is getting our name out there,” said Sandra Barnett, sales manger of Blvd, a bag-maker in Fullerton, Calif. With a 25-year background in items such as leather binders and office supplies, Blvd is entering the fashion leather goods arena. Barnett said she is looking to WWDMAGIC to bring the brand exposure. The line launched there in February and landed some “pretty good orders,” said Barnett.
“We’re trying to put together a more aggressive outgoing sales reach,” she said. “There’s still room for this category to grow.” The collection of Italian leather handbags wholesales for $150 and is directed at upscale stores.
Accessories vendors in just about every product category are expressing the same degree of optimism. At Shady Brady in Ukiah, Calif., owner John Brady said the hatmaker has had “an excellent year” so far.
“There’s still a demand for fashionable Western headwear for women,” he said. “We’re especially seeing a lot of growth in the youth market.”
Brady attributed much of the ongoing success of the 30-year-old label — annual growth is typically in the double digits — to local production.
“We can control deliveries, play it closer to the vest, break packages down. A lot of importers want to sell preset items in a box. We don’t do that. Customers can pick and choose so they create an ideal inventory.” With wholesale prices that are mostly around the $25 to $30 mark (although some models are priced as high as $75 at wholesale), the hats should continue to find favor in a market fueled by sports and leisure activities.
“For vacationwear, gardening, camping — if you can make something fashionable but have it serve a purpose as well, then there’s always a market for it.”
However much trends in the market might change, executives said any imbalance between the key components of a successful accessories line can result in failure.
“The successful designers are the ones who have figured out the formula for each season: cost, design style and trend,” said Sharlene Schneier, director of business development at Corina Collections, an accessories showroom in Los Angeles that represents brands such as Pellemelle belts, Rafia jewelry and hair accessories and Christian Livingston handbags. “These three components need to be balanced in order for a line to be successful and have longevity.”
Knockoffs are rampant, she said, adding that many retailers simply look for the lowest price. “There are always manufacturers copying more established, well-known designers and selling at significantly lower prices,” she said.
Because cost is such a crucial factor, vendors are keeping one eye glued to the bottom line, maintaining their wholesale prices or, in some cases, coming up with lower-priced collections to appeal to an increasingly youthful and price-savvy shopper. Also key: staying on top of the latest trends without going over the top.
“If you stray too far off the map, you don’t get the mass sales. You can be too innovative and new and it doesn’t catch on and then it’s a disaster. You have to stay close to the road that most people travel,” said Jeanne Simmons, owner of Hat Stack/Hat Shack in Vista, Calif. As an example, Simmons cited her Firecracker scarf, a feather yarn boa-like scarf that wholesales for around $7. Although she first put it out five years ago, the scarf didn’t take until this season.
“It’s a growing curve like you wouldn’t believe,” said Simmons. “A lot of it is instinct, but you never know if something is going to work or not.”
She’s also concentrating on new items at an accessible price point — around $7 at wholesale — for what she said is a growing gift category looking for well-priced scarves and gloves.
“Some of our new hats have also come in at a very good price point — less expensive than [traditional fabrics, such as] felt,” she said.
Other vendors agree that including different offerings at a lower price point is a good strategy. Sondra Roberts, the New York-based bag line, has just launched SR Squared, which retails at less than $100, compared with the signature collection, retail priced at $150 and above.
“We’re knocking ourselves off and we’re getting a wonderful response,” said Robyn Albaum, director of public relations for the company, which has been around for 25 years. “A lot of companies are starting to tail off and do these lower-priced divisions so they can expand their customer base.”
Albaum believes in a year or so, SR Squared could be as much as 50 percent of the company’s overall sales.
“We’re predominantly known for our upscale line, but the same design team designs both. We decided to take the same silhouettes and reinterpret them for a different market, in nonleather fabrics, so it’s a reintroduction of the same shape to a totally different customer base. We decided to go deeper rather than wider, because there was a customer out there that loved the line but couldn’t afford it.”
It’s a strategy that seems to be working even for newer imported lines. Spencer and Rutherford, an established maker of bags in Australia, has just been introduced to the U.S. market. Its rep here, Houston-based Karen Jaeggi, said that offering higher- and lower-priced items will help cover all the bases.
“We’re doing a limited-edition line, which wholesales on average at $150, and a regular collection, which is priced at $75 wholesale.” There is also a luggage collection in fashion-forward colors that wholesales for between $70 and $165.
“There are a tremendous number of people in the accessories business, and it’s such a competitive market that the pie is being distributed across a wider range of people,” said Jaeggi. “Our strategy is to give all the stores what they are looking for.”
Schneier of Corina Collections agreed that designers and manufacturers almost have to tailor their offerings to the retail marketplace, instead of the other way around. “Manufacturers need to be flexible designers and be prepared to create based on the requests of larger accounts,” she said. “Reorders depend on how a manufacturer performs this dance.”
Timmy Woods, a Los Angeles-based handbag designer who is bowing a new shoe line this season, said retailers also tend to stick to established vendors.
“People are buying resources that are proven. They’re afraid to experiment. So they’re tending to place deeper orders.”
Her new shoe line, wholesale priced at around $55, will be prepackaged in six packs of sizes, and Woods is working with retailers on attractive point-of-purchase displays. Price, she said, is everything.
“The high-end customer doesn’t mind paying more for a luxury item. But the middle-class consumer is more conscious of spending money now. They’re worried about jobs and mortgages, and that affects everything.”
And because the retail tier system is changing drastically — with the big-box stores ruling the fray — vendors are forced to alter how they do business.
“The smaller retailers who are not well-defined are biting the dust,” said A.J. Morgan, founder of the eponymous sunglasses resource in Los Angeles.
“There’s still plenty of business out there, but you have to make sure you give the retailer what they want, at the price they want. We’ve hit a lot of home runs with certain styles, so we’ve been able to strengthen our relationship with major accounts.”
Variety, said Morgan, is key: His company has more than 900 stockkeeping units, averaging around $5 a pair at wholesale. His customers are mostly buying deeper — concentrating on proven winners on the floor — but also are taking a small chance on different and newer styles.
“As long as you try to service the customer’s unique needs, you will be in business. But you have to know what they want. You can’t just be a commodities broker. Those days are over.”