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Winter 2008
Handbags: Specialty Retailers Deliver Sales

Always Room for Another

For today’s multitasking, multidimensional woman of the 21st Century, there’s no such thing as just one handbag. There’s the oversized bag that fits the laptop, the office bag that complements the suit, the small evening purse to tuck under an arm for a night out, travel bags with a multitude of pockets for that three-day business trip—and on it goes.

According to market researcher Mintel, the US handbag market will reach $8 billion in 2011, up from $6 billion in 2006. And sales for 2006 were already up 18 percent over 2004, although they have been slowing from the record gains posted year after year lately. For the last few years, the biggest share-of-market gains have been specialty and boutique stores, which overtook department stores for a slight lead in 2006 (30 percent for specialty/boutique and 29 percent for department stores). Shoppers “go to specialty stores seeking new trends or to put a new twist on classic styles,” Mintel reports. Fashion is one of the few categories where mass merchandisers (14 percent share) have under-performed the market, the company notes.

No matter where the average handbag shopper buys, one-third of women now own 10 or more handbags and their demand for more keeps increasing. In 2005, 55 percent of women Mintel surveyed felt they could “get by” with an everyday purse and a couple of special occasion bags, but just two years later that number fell to 44 percent.

imageWomen are also spending more on their handbags. The average US consumer now spends $143.37 a year on handbags, up from $134.10 in 2005. Consumers ages 25 to 44 are core shoppers in the handbag market in terms of spending, but the 18-to-24 group is quickly closing the gap. The younger adults own a higher-than-average number of purses. Although they don’t outspend older women, the younger set is expected to carry its handbag-buying habits forward, bolstering future sales. Another bright spot in the industry, Mintel says: “The consumer interest in luxury brands remains top-of-mind, and this climate has encouraged more mid-market shoppers to occasionally trade up for bags at a higher price point.”

Another factor driving purchasing of higher-priced bags—or at least those that look like higher-priced bags—is the continued rise of pop culture. Handbag buyers want to look like celebrities, says says Barry Harrington, president of Handbag Express in Henderson, NV, who wholesales more 800 styles. Harrington says he receives specific requests for bags seen in People and Us Weekly, where jet-setting celebs and their oh-so-trendy bags make regular appearances. But buying the actual bags the stars carry means a huge outlay of cash, which the average consumer can’t afford.

Enter Handbag Express with their American Signature Collection, which mimics big designer names like Fendi and Gucci (without violating any copyright laws) so Average Jane can sport “the bags the stars carry”—with affordable price tags. Wholesalers are able to deliver bags that look expensive but aren’t, Harrington says, thanks in large part to now widely used PU synthetic leather, which is “as buttery soft as real leather” but costs much less than cowhide.

Lexington Handbags, based in Plantation, FL, also sells bags inspired by higher-priced designer looks, with popular silhouettes such as Hobo-style bags that add the perfect touch to any outfit, or Overnight Bags for everyday, anywhere use. Because women don’t have to spend $700 to $800 a bag, but $30 to $50 instead, “they don’t have to stick to one bag,” and they buy more, says Shimon Fima, Lexington’s president.

Function over fashion

imageBag sales aren’t all about fashion, though. For women who work, travel or have children—which includes just about every female over 18—bottom-line functionality is a key selling point. Handbags need to have extra convenient storage compartments, so items can be located easily and quickly, which is exactly what Baggallini in Milwaukie, OR, focuses on. Their number-one selling “Only Bagg” ($64.95 retail) has seven inside zippered pockets, two bottle pockets, a cell phone compartment and a special place for pens, pencils and lipsticks. Customers can choose from a bevy of classic bag colors including tomato, plum and steel blue, and because of the bag’s classic style, it never falls out of fashion.

And while extra-large has had its turn in the limelight for a while now (some say that turn is over), smaller bags also have their place, as is evident in the success of Baggallini’s “Pocket Bagg,” at 6” wide and less than 10” tall, with a retail of $34.95, and their “Bon Voyage Bagg,” 6.5” wide and 9” tall, retailing at $49.95. Both are ideal for travel, which is something Baggallini’s owners know all about: They were once flight attendants. Lightweight, easy-to-locate and hands-free are three key elements that surface in all Baggallini bag designs.

Make it personal

For specialty retailers who want to be on the cutting edge, now’s your chance. A popular new line of customized messenger bags that both sexes can build to their own specs in-store goes by the name Tagger Bags. (“Tagger” is slang for graffiti artist; the bags originally came with markers for customers to “tag.”)

imageTagger Bags have taken off in Asia and other eastern countries and are bound to make a splash here in the States soon. With headquarters in the Netherlands, Tagger Bags International has a retail system where customers choose their core bag, flap and strap and assemble the final piece within minutes. “Instant, fun, customizable,” is how founder and owner Peter van Veldhoven sums it up. The system encourages repeat-purchases as customers come back for replacement component parts or just for change-ups to suit varying moods. Tagger Bags retail for $40 to $50.

Customization makes the bags popular because as a shopper, “You’re always looking at your own style and identity,” says Veldhoven. “You want to be an individual. With any bag, we can basically adapt the style of merchandise sold to the customer.” With 70 different flap designs and 12 bag and strap colors, customers can certainly create a bag that says, “It’s me!”

Although messenger bags are already a hit with guys, to make the line even more appealing to men the company recently scored licenses for hip and edgy designs such as Halo3-themed bags. Backpacks expected in stores by May 2008 will have a new silhouette with masculine appeal, Veldhoven says.

For another one-of-a-kind look, shoppers have started snapping up SnapTotes’ “picture-perfect handbags”—personalized handbags featuring the customer’s own photos, made and shipped within in two weeks of ordering. Customers submit their own images—family members, dogs, favorite vacation scenes, almost anything—to be permanently emblazoned on their bags as their own personal fashion statements for the world to see. SnapTotes are fun bags for people who like to talk about the things they care about, says Chris Ng Cashin, president of the Durham, NC-based company. Retailing for $80 to $90, the bags make great gifts for mothers and grandmothers who want to show off photos of the kids, and pet lovers who can have Spot emblazoned on their tote or Spot’s own travel bag. Especially appealing to customers, Cashin adds, are panoramic images that go all the way around the bag.

imageSnapTotes’ success is two-fold, Cashin explains. Not only can customers create “their own brand,” but SnapTotes delivers a top-notch, high-quality finished product—a well-constructed bag with the photo image baked into the fabric, as opposed to a transfer image that can flake away.

Because the bag is constructed at company headquarters, retailers stock finished samples and customer gift boxes in the form of plastic totes. The totes include a photo on the outside showing the evolution from photo to complete bag. On the inside there’s a fancy gift card and code for gift recipients to go online and create their own bag with a few clicks. Customers can also choose their own inner liner color, and upgrade to leather straps if they’re so inclined. SnapTotes retailers can also stock completed bags as samples and take orders at the store by logging in to the wholesale section of the SnapTotes website and uploading images provided by the customer, making the process simple and seamless for the shopper.

Eco-friendly is eco-trendy

“Going green” is the next big product trend, and Jonathan Marcoschamer, co-founder of Ecoist in Miami, FL, is poised to take advantage of our increased communal interest in products that have a pro-earth edge. Ecoist’s eco-friendly handbags are made from candy wrappers, misprinted soda labels, movie billboards, bar codes, pulltabs, even old New York subway maps. Instead of ending up in landfills, these materials make the ultimate “green fashion statement” on a buyer’s arm.

In addition to the unique core materials Ecoist uses, the company plants a tree for every bag it sells, through a partnership with Trees for the Future, based in Silver Spring, MD. A card inside the bag thanks the customer for supporting the tree-planting program and directs them to a website for further information.

Another eco-friendly company that proves recycled materials can make for sleek and sexy handbags is Hardwear by Renee, based out of Oregon City, OR. Hardwear’s “highway bags” were once used inner tubes and truck tires, but now are fashion- and eco-conscious bags that retail for $65. “Especially this year, [the highway bag] has really, really taken off, says owner Renee Christopher.

Selling words of wisdom

imageWhether the bag is a celebrity look-alike, a custom job, or a style that says “I love the Earth!,” handbags are an ever-evolving segment of the fashion industry, never going extinct but always changing.

“You have to keep up with what’s in fashion. Every month things change,” says Nischal Gor, owner of three handbag carts called “Fashion Unlimited,” with headquarters in Sioux City, IA. Gor stocks 60 to 70 handbag styles at each cart (100 styles during the holidays), with price points ranging from $20 to $50.

For Lorena Rangel, owner of Zebra, a handbag cart at Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, NV, says, “We change all the purses every month” to stay on top of what shoppers are looking for at that very moment, she says.

Hot Trends Handbags, a cart located in the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA, carries three main categories of handbags: evening bags, everyday bags and larger bags for weekend travelers and laptop carriers. “People are always looking for cute laptop bags,” says Owner Sobia Manjra. But what’s really hot are clutches, in every style, as well as metallics in gold, silver and pewter, she says.

Manjra has another handbag cart in the Century City shopping mall (also in Los Angeles), at which she sells accessories such as jewelry, hats, scarves and belts alongside her handbags. Although accessories are a nice option to give your customers, handbags work just as well on their own, says Manjra, since there are so many trends in the marketplace that make the carts look continually fresh.

Having sold handbags for more than eight years now, Manjra has quite a few tips to pass on including: Read a lot of magazines to keep up with the trends, be very conscious of what customers are asking for, and develop good relationships with neighboring retailers who can help you sell.

In the Westside Pavilion, there are nine shoe stores on the first floor, and what do women love to coordinate with their shoes? You’ve got it: handbags. Manjra says she’s developed relationships with neighboring shoe stores and formal dress stores that are “helpful in sending people to me.”

Harrington of Handbag Express offers another tip: “Always buy a bling-bling.” That’s a “bag that draws attention and creates the flash. Let it sell the others,” he says. Manjra stocks a handful of metallic bags with animal prints and crocodile mixed in that draws attention to her selection. They might only be purchased by the eccentric customer, she says, but they get noticed by all kinds of shoppers.

Bag the sale

Whether your customers are going green, going out on the town or going to work, there’s a bag—or two or three—to meet their fashion and function needs. And what better place than the common area to grab the attention of bag buyers of all kinds? This is a sale ready to be bagged.

Article Resources


Blue Heron Bags


Fashion Unlimited

Handbag Express

Hardwear by Renee

Hot Trends Handbags

Lexington Handbags

Mintel International Group


Tagger International B.V.
+31.70.3191535 (Netherlands)


Additional Resources


Bazura Bags


Ceri Wholesale

Dallas Wholesalers

Fashion Wholesaler

J.B. International Co.


S W Trading

Trio Bros. Trading

Emily Lambert

Lambert, a senior writer for SRR, resides in Philadelphia. She can be reached at

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