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Election Uncertainty Sees US Accessories Sector a Little Becalmed

With economic uncertainties fostered by the looming November election, the US accessories market is just one of many sectors to suffer a continuing slowdown as consumers postpone purchasing decisions until the ballot boxes are sealed…

Photo: Art print bags from Kent Stetson: A fun alternative to election gloom.
Art print bags from Kent Stetson: A fun alternative to election gloom.
Photo: Art print bags from Kent Stetson: A fun alternative to election gloom.
Art print bags from Kent Stetson: A fun alternative to election gloom.

The looming presidential elections were blamed by many for slow sales and low confidence at this year's Accessories The Show. Despite this, certain products proved to be reliable sellers, especially through certain – more unusual – sales channels. Overall, though, an authentic backstory seemed to have an appeal for a high proportion of US consumers, while tassels and layered jewellery proved to be very much on-trend.

Complaining of slow sales, Jemma Cook, General Manager of Rain Jewellery, a Maine-based jewellery brand, said: "It's an election year and, traditionally, that is not a great thing. Ask me how things are going again at the end of November."

Andrea Stratton, a Designer for New York's AJS Design Studio, was similarly downbeat. She said: "Business confidence is not great. About a year-and-a-half ago it started to decline – and not just at the New York shows, but also in Vegas."

Kent Stetson, Owner of Kent Stetson, a Rhode Island-based manufacturer of art print bags, believes that this climate of uncertainty has had a hugely negative influence on shopper behaviour and preferences. He said: "I think that for people right now – at least in the US – there is a sense of political anxiety. Everyone's a little bit stressed out, no matter what side of the political spectrum they fall on.

"Our product is fun, so stores are happy to stock something that makes people smile and sets a lighter tone. Our focus is on retailers that have a physical point-of-sale, places where customers can come and visit. I think what people are looking for when they walk into a store is an experience and I think that our products provide that."

Stetson's range of art print clutch bags is, apparently, already proving popular in a variety of different national markets. He said: "We have seen a lot of buyers from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea here. It is a good hub for buyers from around the world. We sell in about 300 stores on an international basis.

"We find that our customers are of all ages. The retail price of our bags is about US$200. Generally speaking, a designer handbag is going to be $300 or $400 at least, so we are on the low to mass-market end of designer price points."

Despite the slow accessories market, some products were proving to be reliable sellers for a number of exhibitors, especially when sold through premium channels. Pat Gough, Owner of the Los Angeles-based Lua accessories brand, said: "It's always the same products that do well for us – our scarves. This is partly because they come in just so many colours.

"At present, we sell through a lot of museums – the Smithsonian, the Chicago Art Museum, the San Francisco Art Museum. This is especially the case with our basic scarf, which comes in 60 colours. It can co-ordinate with whichever show is in town.

"It does well at museum gift shops because it is so easy to display. The colours are rich and that makes it an easy sell.

"These are our only real price point items. Most of our other items are in the $20-30 range, so when you double and triple that you are getting into pretty high cost. Our scarves at retail are under $15 and they are silk."

Photo: Sherpani bags: Recycled chic.
Sherpani bags: Recycled chic.
Photo: Sherpani bags: Recycled chic.
Sherpani bags: Recycled chic.
Photo: Lua: Museums proving a winner for scarf sales.
Lua: Museums proving a winner for scarf sales.
Photo: Lua: Museums proving a winner for scarf sales.
Lua: Museums proving a winner for scarf sales.

Although business as the show was generally seen as being slow, Gough believed attendance was vital in order to reach certain types of buyers, saying: "Our biggest business is the catalogue business. That's why you have to do these shows. They get contacted by so many people it's almost impossible to get yourself in front of them unless you exhibit at these events."

Gough was not alone in championing the scarves through the museum gift shops formula. Chandresh Seth, the Owner of Elegant Additions, a Delaware-based accessories company, said: "We sell handmade silk scarves and each one is a work of art. We sell particularly well in museums and botanical gardens.

"They sell well through these particular channels because these are not the everyday scarves that people wear, which tend to be printed or cotton. They are things that have been artistically produced. They are sold at a very reasonable price point of around $13 so, when a retailer sells one, they can make a 300% or 400% mark up."

In another development, many US consumers now seem to be just as influenced by a product's backstory as by the way it looks. Natalie Fryda, a Key Account Manager at Sherpani, a Colorado-based luggage brand, said: "I think that each channel has its own set of values. We have one collection that is recycled. Now some folks might say, at first glance, it is really cute. When they read the label, though, they discover that every stitch is recycled and they are really bowled over by that.

"Equally, I think a traveller could easily say: 'I love this bag because it weighs less than half a pound and it keeps everything safe, while also being a really cool brand.' They also have a lifetime warranty and we really stand behind the product. That's a major bonus."

While backstory is of interest to some buyers and shoppers, for others, though, it's far more about the look. Juna Drougas, the Owner of Rising Tide, a Maine-based accessories supplier, said: "One woman came in on one of the first days of the show and she was specifically asking about where everything was made, how it was made and so on. We've also had a lot of people who are just concerned with buying stuff. And leaving."

For Cook, it was the cyclical nature of trends that was noticeable, especially in the jewellery sector. She said: "This year's biggest trend has been tassels on everything across the board – clothing, jewellery, accessories… They're even on houseware items.

"We noticed that, in terms of trends, suddenly everything has to be short. Then everything has to be long. One year, you put on one big bracelet, then the next year you wear 10 small ones.

"It's long this year – and layered, so we are kind of working on both. You can have multiple layers, but they are all attached to each other providing the length.

"At this show, though, it's more about Fall styles – a little bling for the holiday season and Christmas. There is still a lot of wedding stuff right now. You get a lot of people searching for things like that."

Fryda was also keen to highlight the influence of general fashion trends on the accessories sector, saying: "I have seen, with regard to our key national accounts, that the same trends apply pretty much nationally. Everybody is aspiring to a wellness lifestyle and to identify brands that they feel good about. Despite that, there are definitely some regional variations too.

"Some of our bags, for instance, are made of boiled wool and the southern states are not into that. For them, it's too heavy and too thick. On the West Coast, though, you see a bit more of an organic feel. That trend is now moving across the country."

For Stratton, despite being based in New York, she has found that the southern US states are more receptive to her style of jewellery. She said: "We mostly sell in the South. I think that they like to try new and different things. They are more into colour and the larger style of items that we carry. Then, on the East Coast, and part of the Northwest Coast, we sell a lot of smaller items. They tend to like more delicate jewellery."

Photo: Elegant Additions: Each scarf “a work of art”.
Elegant Additions: Each scarf “a work of art”.
Photo: Elegant Additions: Each scarf “a work of art”.
Elegant Additions: Each scarf “a work of art”.
Photo: Rain Jewellery: Business becalmed.
Rain Jewellery: Business becalmed.
Photo: Rain Jewellery: Business becalmed.
Rain Jewellery: Business becalmed.

Accessories The Show 2016 was held at New York's Jacob K Javits Convention Center from 31 July-2 August.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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