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Tween self-expression makes the accessories market sparkle

It's no secret that tween girls define their personalities by identifying with attributes and pop-culture icons they admire, and they're not shy about literally wearing these ID badges on their sleeves. All this has led to an accessories boom that has seen the category expand over the last two years from socks, shoes and bags at mass retailers to encompass a much wider range of product in channels that run the gamut from specialty accessories stores, to high-end jewelry and department chains.
August 1, 2004

It’s no secret that tween girls define their personalities by identifying with attributes and pop-culture icons they admire, and they’re not shy about literally wearing these ID badges on their sleeves. All this has led to an accessories boom that has seen the category expand over the last two years from socks, shoes and bags at mass retailers to encompass a much wider range of product in channels that run the gamut from specialty accessories stores, to high-end jewelry and department chains.

Armed with the knowledge that self-expression and personalization are the primary functions of accessories in the tween girl’s world, some companies are looking to play up that hook even more with products and properties that are inherently infused with changeable features to suit the moods and whims of their wearers.

The charm bracelet biz offers a good example of this trend’s potential for success. Thanks in large part to its Build a Better Bracelet line, which launched in 2002, Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based manufacturer The Bead Shop tripled its output in 2003, significantly out-performing the average volume growth of 30% to 40% it had been clocking in each year since launching in 1996. The BABB product range features interchangeable letters and icons of various sizes and styles that can be strung onto jewelry.

The most popular items are the rhinestone letters, and girls are also snapping up bracelets, flip flops and dog collars. ‘We’ve been tap-dancing as fast as we can to keep up with demand, and we’ll probably double our volume this year,’ says Bead Shop president Goldie Miller.

The company has also sold out of two customizable shoe lines – the Wooden Shoe Wanna Paint These! (Dr. Scholl’s-style clogs that girls can paint) and Happy Girl Lucky Shoes (mesh slides that can be embroidered with beads and sequins). Miller predicts the next hot seller will be magnetic jewelry with rhinestone-studded tiles that cling together to create a very high-end look. She says almost all of the retailers that carry the BABB line have jumped on the new easily customized style, which her company launched in Q1.

The Bead Shop initially concentrated its distribution efforts for Build a Better Bracelet on toy stores. But over the last year, new orders from specialty shops like Hallmark, high-end jewelry outlets such as the Ritz Carlton chain of gift shops, and even hair salons and pet stores have come in with greater regularity. In September, The Bead Shop will launch its Honestly Heart to Heart line, which features loops surrounded by crystals that can be strung on a necklace. Each loop has an emotion like love or hope on it, and several can be worn at once.

Forward-thinking property developers are also aiming to make their newest IPs more customizable in nature, with Nickelodeon’s everGirl running near the front of the pack. The fashion and lifestyle brand showcases four distinct personalities (Joy is a fashion diva, Hope’s a braniac, Skye’s a jock, and Starr is a musician) for girls to connect with and emulate, making it easy to hit retail with a line of accessories that covers a wide variety of trends. The accessories category is a crucial one, given that Nick has seen its business in this arena increase by 50% to 75% over the past two years.

everGirl has been building up its audience on-line via a community-centered website that attracted roughly 1.4 million unique users in June, following its January 2004 launch. With that loyal following in place, Nick is gearing up to roll out a product line involving 20 licensees in 542 Kohl’s department stores this month. In addition to a range of H.E.R. Accessories SKUs tailored to each personality – including bandanas and terrycloth wristbands for Skye and bright costume jewelry for Joy – the everGirl boutiques will feature modular or Italian charms by Casa D’Oro, apparel by Jerry Lee and Briefly Stated, bedding by Franco and journals by ASL Publishing, along with various cosmetics and home décor SKUs.

Another believer in the power of self-expressive accessories is L.A.-based licensing agency Brand Central, which is working towards launching a personality-based brand called AstroStyle in the fall. Created by Teen People and AOL Teen astrologists Ophira and Tali Edut, the fashion-based property has 12 mini-lines encompassing apparel by Mamiye Sales and MJC, stationery, beauty and home décor, with H.E.R. once again taking the helm on accessories. The line, which will launch at mid-tier and specialty before hitting mass, was developed to appeal to the personality groups associated with astrological signs. Each sign has a character attached to it, and items such as belts, purses and bracelets will sport the characters or taglines like ‘Gemini: Split Personality’ and ‘Sagittarius: Know it All.’

Licensing agent The Joester Loria Group will launch the U.S. incarnation of Withit for back-to-school, with a line of accessories, bags, cosmetics and room décor at Claire’s. Originally developed for the U.K. market in 2002, Withit is a web-driven fashion brand created by the owners of a retail chain of the same name.

The U.S. version of the website, which launched in December 2003, garnered 1.7 million hits in May. The property features 10 animal characters, similar in style to Paul Frank’s creations, and each one has its own distinct personality. For example, Cool the Penguin is a skateboarding fast-food junkie who likes his tunes loud and fast, while Lady the Fox enjoys the finer things in life like shopping, champagne and caviar.

That retailers are embracing accessories in a more conspicuous way is certainly helping to drive sales and manufacturer interest. Retail buyers love the potential for exclusivity made possible by the category’s wide range of available product, and the fact that most items can be priced in the allowance-friendly zone between US$1 and US$10 is equally appealing.

Specialty toy retailer Learning Express recently armed almost all of its 110 U.S. locations with sections dedicated to hip accessories and gifts. LE’s accessory sales have grown by about 40% over the past two years, and about 30% of the chain’s 50 best-selling items in 2003 were from the accessory and gift category, with classic red and pink Hello Kitty SKUs including bags and stationery posting a particularly strong showing. Charm bracelet gear from Build A Better Bracelet and Fair Lawn, New Jersey-based High IntenCity’s Charm It! line also stand out as particularly hot sellers. Learning Express buyer Sandie Paradiso says the magnetic jewelry line from The Bead Shop, which LE picked up in the spring, has also been gathering steam.

Similarly, mid-tier department store chain Mervyn’s has launched its own branded accessories line called Pinkie’s Palace, merchandised through in-store boutiques in 255 stores. The 75-SKU line rolled out in January, and top-sellers so far include feather boas, sparkly tiaras and jewelry products such as a heart necklace and charm bracelet kit. Sales in the section have been good enough that Mervyn’s is expanding the line’s presence throughout the store for back-to-school to include bedding, home décor, shoes and sleepwear.

Lee Walker de Sarvide, VP of marketing for Mervyn’s, says much of the sales boom in this category can be attributed to the fact that the number of tweens has grown significantly over the past few years. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, there were 19.5 million five- to 12-year-old girls in 2000 (versus 10 million 13- to 17-year-olds), with the younger end of this group just entering their tween years now. Minneapolis, Minnesota-based market research firm Iconoculture pegs the total buying power of kids eight to 12 at about US$19.5 billion.

Looking ahead to what’s likely to shine in 2004/2005, retro toy properties like DIC’s Strawberry Shortcake, Sanrio’s Hello Kitty and American Greetings’ Care Bears are all likely to continue to perform well in the accessories aisle. Sales of Care Bears merchandise in general has grown by triple digits over the last two years, and the property moved more than US$50 million worth of accessories in 2003, says Debra Joester, president of Care Bears licensing agent The Joester Loria Group. Brand Central president Ross Mischer, meanwhile, is confident that really girly items splashed liberally with pink will be strong sellers, as well as funny, edgy character-based properties like David & Goliath and It’s Happy Bunny.

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