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Accessories sales prove a mixed bag for retailers

With accessories a cheap way for cash-strapped shoppers to update their wardrobes, 2012 has been a good year for sales in the category. But volume sales tell a different story… 

Since the recession first hit in 2008, almost every TV fashion show has been preaching that the best way to update an outfit without breaking the bank is simply to freshen it up with accessories.

Out in the real world, this has translated into sales growth that puts clothing divisions to shame. While womenswear remained flat this year, the value of the women’s accessories market has grown 2.6% in the year to September 30. Scarves and bags have been the main driver of this, up 8.1% and 10.6% respectively.

Sales of women’s scarves during the same 12-month period totalled £226.5m, while handbags generated £572.4m.

“All categories of [women’s accessories] products are in growth except belts and costume jewellery, which are in decline and have been since April this year,” explains Charlotte Wilks, consumer research analyst at Kantar Worldpanel. The value of belt sales has fallen 15.1% while costume jewellery has declined 8.4%.

For those accessories that are in vogue, the opportunities are opening up. Australian clutch bag specialist Olga Berg is planning to expand in the UK, and has hired an agent to “capitalise on growing brand awareness”. French luxury accessories brand Longchamp, best known for its folding handbag Le Pliage, counts the UK and Republic of Ireland among its most important markets, having opened a second London store in Westfield London earlier this year.

Last week it emerged that Mango is planning standalone fascias for its accessories division Touch in the UK. Luxury label Lulu Guinness is also on the expansion trail, opening its first outlet store – and first branch outside London – last week at McArthurGlen’s Cheshire Oaks centre.

Indies are also cashing in. St Albans womenswear indie The Dressing Room bet big on Danish scarf brand BecksÖndergaard this autumn, and it has paid off spectacularly, with sales of the brand up more than 500% so far. Janine O’Keefe, owner of womenswear indie Okeefe in Esher, Surrey, is seeing similar success with the brand and accessories more generally.

“Customers are looking to update their wardrobes with a new necklace, scarf or handbag, sometimes instead of a larger investment in a new item of clothing,” O’Keefe explains.

Nigel Blow, chief executive of department store Arnotts in Dublin, says Longchamp has performed exceptionally well in his store, with sales of the brand up 150% since a dedicated shop-in-shop opened last November.

On the back of the past year’s success, indies are continuing to invest in accessories.

Melissa Wheeler, manager of mainstream womenswear indie Ambiance of Colchester, plans to increase her stock of statement scarves for spring 13.

Alice Stone, creative director at luxury scarf brand Lily and Lionel, says stockists of all shapes and sizes have increased their orders: “Our key retailers have mostly said accessories sales are particularly healthy – despite the economic downturn this seems to be one of their busiest areas.”

Louise Smart, sales manager at German scarf brand Fraas, believes the 40% increase she has seen in orders for spring 13 is driven by increased demand for the brand’s mid-price offer, with retail prices from £35 to £70.

Luxury handbag brands such as Mulberry have continued to see strong growth domestically. The brand saw UK sales grow 10% this year, the profit warning it issued last month being a problem caused by a slowdown in Asia.

However, the tide may well be turning, and the value of the whole market could be on the wane. “Although women’s accessories are in growth, it’s at the lowest rate we’ve seen in three years,” says Wilks. “We’re seeing buyers shop for accessories less often and a drop in buyers.”

Despite Mulberry’s resilience, others have had less success. Faith Willis, co-owner of contemporary womenswear indie Women’s Society Boutique in Hertford, says sales of handbags have declined in her store over the past year and, as a result, the retailer has reduced its spend on accessories for spring 13.

Luxury handbags in particular are not as popular with her customers. This is one area where the argument of a lower-cost update to an old outfit clearly does not work – luxury handbags being far from a cheaper option.

Kantar Worldpanel figures show that sales volume across all women’s accessories has actually fallen 3.2% to 128.1 million units. As with value, in volume terms belts and costume jewellery fared worst, down 9.8% and 9.7% respectively.

Scarves and gloves were the healthiest category, up 7.5% over the period.

There is, however, another driver of growth – the weather.

Fraas has adapted to the recent unseasonal weather, allowing its customers to buy closer to the season. This has helped the brand navigate an autumn that was warmer and sunnier than the summer.

“While the warm winter of 2011 affected our forward orders for autumn 12, the unpredictability of spring and summer meant scarves were in high demand,” says Smart.

Even those indies that have bet big on accessories are naturally hoping the cold weather will lead to customers updating their entire wardrobe. But while the economy continues to flounder, scarves, gloves and bags continue to offer warmth.

Story in Numbers

2.6% - Increase in value of women’s accessories market between October 2, 2011 and September 30, 2012

3.2% - Drop in volume of sales in women’s accessories market between October 2, 2011 and September 30, 2012

128.1m - Units of women’s accessories sold in the UK in year to September 30, 2012

Source: Kantar Worldpanel

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