Junior accessories manufacturers typically benefit from a fickle customer whose fashion sensibility changes so quickly that she disposes and replaces items regularly.

But what once looked like an easy ride for junior accessories vendors has now become a challenging journey.

As the marketplace becomes increasingly saturated with vendors offering similar pieces, a greater emphasis has been placed on lower prices, forcing vendors to reevaluate their profit margins and production efforts.

In addition, the slump in the economy has made retailers more cautious. Many slashed their open-to-buys and are writing orders closer to delivery to allow more time to figure out trend directions.

While the fourth quarter of last year was dismal for many vendors, business is now picking up and vendors expect retailers to stock up on must-have junior accessories. Here, a look at what’s happening at a handful of companies:

“Stores didn’t place orders until very late because buyers didn’t know what was going to happen or where to place their money,” said Judy Wood, vice president of Los Angeles-based Ann’s Trading Co. Inc. “In November, there was still a need to fill in new merchandise for the fourth quarter.”

Wood said a key challenge for the 18-year-old company is keeping prices at par with its competitors, because price is sometimes the only way to attract shoppers, given the market’s saturation of similar offerings.

“We cannot underestimate these kids,” she said. “These kids know fashion, pricing and how to shop. We are now seeing 10-year-olds who comp[arison]-shop.”

The junior accessories market’s growth has prompted New York-based International Connection, which focuses on jewelry for body piercings, to cut its prices.

“We can’t ignore the competition, so we reduced prices between 20 and 40 percent,” said sales and marketing director Roni Lifshitz. The 12-year-old firm sells to tattoo parlors, novelty gift shops and jewelry stores.

International Connection is also tweaking its packaging and displays.

As stores are becoming increasingly cautious with their spending, inventory management has become more important to vendors.

“The open-to-buy has been cut back,” said Kenneth Gramm, vice president of New York-based Pan Oceanic Eyewear. “More and more, they depend on us to stock merchandise and turn it around in a matter of days. They are not looking to tie their dollars up.”

To that end, the 32-year-old company recently invested in a new computer system that monitors inventory levels and produces six-week sales projections.

Gramm said he projects 2002 to be flat, and the company is planning more promotions, including sales discounts for retailers. “You have to be flexible with promotions because in times like this, you have to stimulate business,” he said.

“Last year was one of our best years, but after September, sales dropped off,” said Ava DeMarco, chief executive officer at Pittsburgh-based Littlearth.

The nine-year-old company focuses on fashion accessories made from recycled materials, including belts made from recycled rubber that are adorned with bottle caps and an old seatbelt buckle.

DeMarco said the company after Sept. 11 cut back on some of its orders and called its major accounts to inquire if existing orders were status quo. “We have pushed off deliveries a little bit,” she said. “It’s just made us really look at scheduling more closely, which has affected the business positively, since people are managing their inventories more closely.”

President Robert Brandegee said the company is seeking to boost its junior specialty store distribution, a move it hopes boosts the company’s sales. “Specialty retail chains tend to be able to tell the story effectively, while increasing sales dramatically,” he said.

At New York-based Blue J, keeping up with the trends and being able to find a manufacturer that can churn out the trendy items is a top priority.

“The challenge is to keep on top of what girls want,” said Jodi Edley, owner of the three-year-old firm. “It always happens so quickly, so you have to hop on it very quickly. You just have to find the right places to have it manufactured. Sometimes it could be a problem. It can take extra time…and then someone else does it already.”

Edley also said it’s difficult keeping prices down, given the current economic climate.

“My pricing is staying the same,” she said. “It’s difficult, but you have to find the right manufacturers who will work with you.”

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