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Byline: AMANDA MEADUS
NEW YORK -- The branded accessories business is burgeoning at the mass market level.
For manufacturers and retailers of mass merchandise, the validity of labels is growing as evidence of value for the consumer. This is happening, in at least some cases, at the expense of private label and unlabeled goods.
Abe Chehebar, president of Accessory Network here, a leading maker of mass market accessories, said that although his firm still does some private label business, sales of branded goods have begun to predominate. Accessory Network produces branded accessories under a number of labels, including Gitano, Sasson and Chic.
Chehebar said this is true for the mass retailers as well.
"In stores," Chehebar estimated, "private label has dropped from 40 to 50 percent of the accessories business to about 30 percent in the last few years." Recent visits to area merchants such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Bradlees and Caldor revealed a plethora of brands -- established accessories brands such as Timex, Seiko and Foster Grant, as well as jeans-related names including Gitano, Bonjour, Sasson and Jordache.
"Accessories is the fastest-growing division we have," said Linda Elton, president of Sasson Licensing Corp. here. In 1993, Elton said, Sasson's accessories sales rose 37 percent, and similar growth is expected this year.
Last week, Sasson announced it had moved its key handbag license from Mitzi International to Accessory Network, which already handles the Sasson hat, knitwear and neckwear lines. Sasson also puts its name on licensed lines of watches, small leather goods, jewelry and luggage.
Sasson has found that if a look sells in sportswear, it's likely to perform in accessories, according to Michael Shulman, vice president of merchandising for the company.
"We believe that the consumer will stay with one brand, head to toe, if everything goes together," Shulman said. "Every season, we take a theme or print and work it into all of our accessories."
"The brands are what bring people into the stores' accessories departments," said Accessory Network's Chehebar. "In most cases, when a retailer offers branded products on a circular, the draw is much greater than when the products are unbranded."
Although it manufactures a range of goods including hair accessories, hats and belts, Accessory Network specializes in handbags.
"Brands are very key in handbags, and I think a lot of that was initiated at the department store level, when Liz Claiborne started its handbag line and the importance of the name translated successfully from the ready-to-wear into the handbag department," Chehebar noted. "Now the same thing has happened at the mass level, and a jeans name that people know and trust is just as valid on a bag."
Brands, though, don't have to derive from sportswear to work well in accessories, as Larry Meyers, senior vice president of RGA Accessories, pointed out. Licensed names from other areas have caught on as well. RGA has been making women's wallets and key rings under licensing agreements with the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball for the last 1 1/2 years.
"These names have meant big business for us," Meyers said. "Yes, it's a specialized type of product, but our items are usually merchandised at the check-out counters and, as impulse items, they sell extremely well."
For other manufacturers, trading on the recognition factor of their own established names has been a key strategy at the mass level. One of these is Totes, which does a mass market umbrella and rainwear line called Chromatics by Totes. In a survey conducted last year by WWD, the Totes brand was the 49th-most-recognized women's fashion brand in the U.S.
"It's having the 'By Totes' on the products that counts," said Michael Cardito, vice president of the company.
"The Chromatics name is just there so that we don't get in trouble with our department store accounts, but that name in and of itself doesn't have much meaning," Cardito added. "It's the Totes name that people are willing to pay for. Without that we'd be just another inexpensive mass market umbrella."
Retailers also said that well-known names often have the biggest impact when put on functional accessories, where reliability and consumer trust in the name play a big role.
"At this point, we try to stick with brands -- well-known names or even just manufacturers' labels -- as much as we can," said Bob Greenwald, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of soft lines merchandise for Jamesway Corp., a 94-store discounter based in Secaucus, N.J. "We tried private label in accessories about five years ago, but it didn't go over too big.
"In something like watches, people are looking for names they feel confident in because they want the products to work," Greenwald added. "They see names like Timex and Seiko in our watch departments and feel they know what they're dealing with."
Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, has found that the success of the brand depends on the type of accessory. The retailer goes big on brands in small leather goods, for instance, according to a company spokeswoman.
"We've found a very strong brand recognition factor in small leather goods, even more so than in other classifications," the spokeswoman said. "People tend to trust names in the moderate level of small leather goods, such as Buxton and Prince Gardner, because they've been around for years, whereas moderate brands in handbags aren't necessarily household names."
Even if the accessories brand isn't widely known, it's better than having no name on the product, some retailers state.
"The names we offer in handbags -- Mitzi, Baggo and others -- aren't necessarily as well recognized as names like Gitano or Wrangler," Jamesway's Greenwald said. "But we still feel that all consumers like to have some kind of label with which they can identify."
Arthur Grayer, vice president of sales for Bijoux International, which makes the Eastport backpack line, said that name seems to be developing some recognition at the mass level.
The Eastport line is also sold to department stores, he noted, so in some cases the firm has tried to ship unlabeled goods to mass merchants in order to avoid conflicts. "We didn't think it would make that much of a difference," Grayer said. "But in every case, the mass retailers said they wanted the Eastport name on the backpacks."