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Shifting Strategies(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 04,2008)

Apparel & Fashion Accessories

Augmenting designs, cutting costs and diversifying markets, apparel and fashion accessories suppliers are ready for any demand slowdown

Enriching a choice of modish items, competitive pricing and market diversification are among the new strategies of apparel and fashion accessories suppliers rising to fresh challenges.

Topping the trade's concerns are signs of an economic slowdown in leading markets such as the US, Japan and parts of Europe.

"Two years ago, the markets were better," recalls Thomas Bettan, General Manager of Hammerhead Shark Ltd, a Hong Kong supplier of fashion jewellery, hair accessories and bags.

"The world economy isn't as good as before. Girls may buy blouses, but they'll buy necklaces only if they still have money left," he adds. "Big department stores sell more and more accessories so they may do their own production. It's difficult for wholesalers and retailers to hold their positions in the market."

Adaptive strategies

To cope, Hammerhead Shark follows a viable strategy built around an eight-member design team in Paris, a vast selection and attractive prices.

"Every six months, we do about 4,000 new items," Mr Bettan says, adding that the company can thus serve buyers from almost anywhere, regardless of economic issues.

"This industry demands change, and customers and consumers want new things all the time," he observes.

In order to control overheads for competitive pricing and to offer a diverse collection, Hammerhead outsources its production to various low-cost locations.

"Depending on the raw materials, we produce in the Philippines, Indonesia, India or China. Not having our own factory, we can produce in the best locations. For example, Indonesia specialises in wood, and China is good with metal and plastic."

Material approach

Another manufacturer, Hilton Fur and Leather (HK) Ltd, is fighting the impact of weakening overseas economies by taking aim at materials. "In some ways, the market's really tough so we try to find different materials," Sales Manager Vivian Wong says.

"The most expensive leather comes from sheep, but some customers need more economical items and so we still use pig leather and cowhide."

Sometimes, the firm saves on fur costs with a leather/fur mix. "Fox fur looks valuable, but you often see Chinese common rabbit because the pile is inexpensive."

She notes that fur is becoming even more fashionable with potentially widening markets. "In the past, we mainly did fur garments. Now we work on a lot of accessories, mixing and matching with other clothing."

Nevertheless, Ms Wong also points to worries in the trade over "misinformation" spread by anti-fur activists. "Some of what appears on the Internet about fur farming isn't true," she claims. "I've visited fur farms and the animals aren't treated badly. If they lived in crowded cages or dirty conditions, they'd fight or become unhealthy, the fur would be damaged and we couldn't use it."

Grasping trends

Other Asian suppliers are also grappling with slower demand. "The problem relates to the economies of Europe and elsewhere, plus the weakening US dollar that makes our prices look more expensive. People appreciate our jewellery, but they have less buying power," says Isabel Yu, Manager at Belcris Int'l Fashion Accessories of the Philippines.

"Our products are trendy and often updated, and European customers like them. Buyers from the US have different tastes and favour more traditional-looking items," she adds.

Recognising the economic realities, Belcris also tries to adjust its collections to lower costs and reduce prices. "We may choose different materials, but the look will stay the same," Ms Yu remarks. Using natural materials such as wood or shells offers benefits, as they, together with natural styles, are regaining popularity, she observes.

Market diversification

"We always want more orders and to penetrate new markets," adds Ms Yu, mentioning high hopes for Russia. "New markets are important as others become saturated."

Catching up with the mode is also a focus at the Chinese mainland's Nantong A&C Accessories Co Ltd, which makes fashionable knitted hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, shawls and children's wear.

Products Executive Zhu Jia highlights a trend towards cable-knit items, notably hats and scarves. "Striped patterns are fashionable. Green and purple are popular colours," he adds.

"Warmth used to be the first function, but now most buyers focus on how the products look. Appearance prevails. With hats, colour is always important, and each customer wants extra-special items."

With adaptive approaches and a close eye on fads, competitive manufacturers will always continue to come up with apparel and fashion accessories that wow the chic and funky.