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Fall 2003 Warm and Woolly

As wintry weather moves into much of the country and Jack Frost nips at noses and toes, folks dig into their winter wardrobes and pull out hats, scarves, gloves and more—and find they’re worn out. Or out of fashion. Or not this year’s hot hues. For all of those reasons or no reason at all, fashion accessories for winter are something of a renewable resource. Customers of both genders and all ages buy them to update their winter look, perk up a bleak day, or solve the perennial “What should I give them?” holiday quandary. Here’s a look at some toasty-hot accessories for winter.

Nothing “old hat”

Hats, hoods and other winter head coverings are expected to do well, of course. “A really good hat cart can sell 3,000 units, or around $90,000, during the holiday season,” says Ron Dumarest, VP of sales and marketing for Philadelphia-based Hot Headz of America. “Accessories [such as hats, scarves and gloves]… are selling well,” says Judith Russell, executive editor of Apparel Strategist, an apparel-retail industry newsletter. “Leather accessories and bags will also be strong this year,” she says.

But because it’s a highly competitive retail market, Russell advises specialty retailers to “gravitate toward things that are unusual, that consumers can’t find elsewhere.” Hats, scarves, gloves and mittens are especially strong sellers when the styling is a little out of the ordinary, says Amanda Wilczynski, product line manager for Redfish Designs (Rehoboth Beach, DE). Redfish specializes in hand-knit scarves, hats, burnt-velvet shawls and wraps, suede and leather gloves, and handbags.

Big sellers all, their wraps and scarves are hand-painted silk or velvet in eye-catching, often whimsical designs from geometrics, flowers or fish to unexpected elements like coffee cups, dresses or chairs. The long wraps (15″ x 60″ or longer), a look that gained wide popularity last year and a Redfish mainstay, come in silk, velvet, satin, taffeta, and acrylic or mohair knits. The most popular colors aren’t the basics, but range from jewel tones to shades like olive and coral, a trend that will be even bigger this year than last. Still, classic neutrals such as brown and camel are also in demand.

For this winter, Redfish has added hand-crocheted triangle wraps and hand-knit ponchos to its line, reflecting styles that have consistently cropped up in fall and winter fashion forecasts. The company adds its own twist here, too, by using bright, “un-wintry” colors like aqua and orange. “[They] brighten any wardrobe,” says Wilczynski, and turn a basic outerwear item into a fashionable new favorite.

Redfish says its wares are more “novelty gift items,” which is great for the holiday shopping season. Customers love the look, the colors and the fabrics, and are unlikely to find carbon copies elsewhere in the mall. Items retail between $25 to $125, the most expensive being the large hand-painted wraps. Wilczynski says specialty retailers can expect to at least double their investment on Redfish merchandise.

Keeping prices competitive is important this winter, according to Russell, who believes consumers are still reeling from the downturn in the economy. They’ll be spending, but carefully. People have to stay warm, so sales of winter-wardrobe mainstays like sweaters and outerwear may not be impacted much by price-sensitive shoppers.

Slip one on

imageAnother important cold-weather accessory is slippers, particularly sheepskin. Although cozy slippers are popular holiday gift items, Cloud Nine Sheepskin’s are a step above, says Gina Vaughan, the company’s national sales manager. From its start 26 years ago, Cloud Nine Sheepskin (Lynnwood, WA) has specialized in quality sheepskin accessories. The company even has roots in specialty retail, having sold their footwear, including clogs and boots, through mall kiosks for more than 20 years. Today, Cloud Nine operates eight kiosks during the holidays.

What makes Cloud Nine’s slippers superior is the high-grade sheepskin they import from New Zealand and Australia, plus the indoor/outdoor flexibility of the rubber sole. The company makes several slipper variations for both indoor and outdoor use.

Pre-packaged in a gift box and priced at $42.99, the slippers have wide appeal. “Customers of all ages buy our slippers,” Vaughan says, but the company’s target customers are middle- and upper-income consumers who shop in Class A and B malls. With a markup of nearly 300 percent, the slippers are “very profitable” for retailers, she says, even at the lowest volume purchase level.

In the hood

Polar fleece hoods from Hot Headz of America (Philadelphia, PA) are another unique twist on an old standard—the winter hat. Business partners Bruce Singer and Jay Oxenhorn established Hot Headz in 1995, having seen the item’s great potential immediately. In addition to serving as a typical head covering, the Hot Headz hood can be worn five additional ways to keep head and neck warm, says Dumarest. Available in 15 two-tone, reversible color combinations, they’re “a great product for outdoor use for any age,” he says. “Everyone from teenagers to senior citizens buys them.” Because of their versatility, the hoods are also popular with customers such as construction workers, who appreciate the hood’s ability to keep them warm and dry in frigid conditions; hunters, who typically buy them in high-visibility orange; and other outdoors types like skiers, joggers and walkers.

This year, the company has expanded the line to include polar-fleece gloves, socks and couch-potato sleeping sacks—great for carts and kiosks. “We’re very conscious of what works well on carts,” says Dumarest, “and we try and keep our products in the $10 to $30 range.” Even with affordable price points, “dealers make good margin,” he says.

One of the newer staples for kids, teens, men and women is the polar fleece pullover or jacket. Functional and stylish, these are items shoppers buy for themselves and for people on their holiday lists. Retailing at around $30, “they’re great gifts,” says Peter Moubayed, president of New England Fleece (Fall River, MA), and that drives up sales during the holiday shopping season.

Polar fleece originated about 20 years ago as a high-tech, lightweight fabric for wear in extreme climates, such as the Arctic—hence the “polar” name. It moved into the mainstream via ski wear and camping. Today, that fabric in a wide range of colors and a variety of funky prints has wide appeal. For New England Fleece’s products, the company controls quality by manufacturing, cutting and sewing their fabric. Moubayed says that while the business was built on jackets and pullovers (markup: 250-300 percent), they have recently expanded its offerings by adding mittens, hats and scarves to its core line. The new line of accessories (markup: 300-400 percent) provides retailers with an easy way to generate add-on sales as well as spur impulse buys.

Start early

imageThe demand for what your great-grandmother called “woollies” starts as soon as people feel that first autumnal snap in the air. Put off ordering your winter merchandise, and the weather will turn frosty before you’re ready to meet that demand. Dumarest recommends ordering in time to have your inventory in stock by early fall—the earlier the better—so you’ll be prepared for eager customers the moment they start shopping for warmth.

Being stocked early also helps develop customers’ awareness of your winter merchandise well before the critical holiday shopping season, says Vaughan. The end of warm weather varies by geography, of course, but the holiday season doesn’t. And since that’s the biggest sales draw no matter where you are, you want to be ready for it in plenty of time.

Stocking the right sizes is also crucial, but that can be a challenge for retailers stocking heavy, bulky winter apparel in the limited space of a cart or kiosk. In those cases, Moubayed advises carrying plenty of smaller items like accessories, and perhaps just six or seven larger items in a wide range of sizes. (Customers will walk away if you don’t have their size.) Also be sure you have backstock right there at the mall, so you can quickly replenish items in the best-selling sizes.

To attract customers rushing by your cart and get them to stop, your products have to be easy to spot. “Keep it simple,” Moubayed says. A cart that looks “stuffed” doesn’t draw shoppers or encourage them to buy. Lighting is critical. “Customers are likely to walk by a dark booth,” says Wilczynski. So is effective merchandising. She recommends displaying as many colorful pieces at eye level as possible. Moubayed agrees: “[Bright] ‘pop-y’ colors such as yellow, purple and gold bring customers to the cart. Bread-and-butter colors like black and navy are drab,” he says, even though once the shoppers are there, they’re actually more likely to buy those darker colors. Dumarest finds that black, navy, and dark grey are perennial favorites; so is red. “Standard colors sell best,” he says. Other colors that always do well: navy, charcoal, hunter green and burgundy. And yet Moubayed has found that, for his company’s line, “black outsells other colors two to one, [but] royal blue is hot this year.”

As with everything else, product knowledge is critical to clinching the winter-wear sale, she says. Redfish sales staffers must be able to explain and describe the intricate process of hand-painting, for example; or for New England Fleece staffers, how polar fleece keeps you toasty. Talking about an item and demonstrating it—how it’s made or how it’s worn—creates a richer experience for the customer, who will be much more likely to buy as a result.

Moubayed advises taking products out of their packaging, so that customers can touch them and try them on. “They’ll sell themselves” that way, he has found. Or go a step further, as Cloud Nine does: the try-on. Because the slippers are what Vaughan calls a “touch-and-feel” item, she recommends letting shoppers try them on. She suggests “[putting] size runs on a display table to encourage customers to try them on in their size. Or put out just one pair designated as your try-on set.” Either way, the key is getting shoppers to put the slippers on their feet. Once that happens, they often buy—and that one purchase for the customer’s own feet usually leads to buying additional pairs as gifts.

“From the very beginning, Hot Headz has sold exceptionally well off carts,” Dumarest says, mainly because the founders recognized the effectiveness of demonstration. “You can make a whole show out of it, like an infomercial,” showing the hood’s various permutations. Retailers encourage shoppers to touch the velvety feel of the hoods and their soft warmth, at the same time pointing out the product’s benefits, such as being wind- and waterproof, and no pilling. The company also has a 30-second video it recommends that cart retailers play as a conversation-starter with customers.

Another technique, says Vaughan, is the sales staffers’ own testimonials—how and why they’re happy with the product, and the specific advantages they’ve discovered (for example, being able to pop Cloud Nine slippers into the washer). Sharing customer testimonials and anecdotes also works well, she says, especially as a way to give customers ideas for using the item (“One customer bought an indoor pair to wear in the house, and an outdoor pair for getting the morning paper.”), and assuring them of the product’s popularity.

Another way to boost add-on sales is to offer “twofers,” says Dumarest. Instead of selling one hood for $30, for example, offer the option of two for $50. And don’t forget add-ons: suggest a pair of matching gloves to go with a hat purchase, or a coordinating scarf for those mittens. “It’s easy to get an add-on when someone buys a hat” and a matching accessory is available, Moubayed says. Throwing in a discount just about seals the deal.

Warming trend

As temperatures drop, people will be buttoning up, bundling up, and shopping—for new hats, scarves, gloves, and more. And for specialty retailers who are ready with winter accessories, a warm, comfy year-end season is in store.

Marcia Layton Turner -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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