“Handbags have been a hot, call-to-action-type purchase, but now customers are looking for versatility and it’s resulted in very subtle trend and branding, which makes it less urgent to update your bag,” said Robert Burke, chief executive officer of fashion industry consulting firm Robert Burke Associates. “What happens when retail is shaky is that customers go back and shop their closet and see what they have.”

WWD | MISTY WHITE SIDELL AND DEBRA BORCHARDT

The handbag market’s been, well, a mixed bag.

Retailers are seeing a swelling inventory of sameness that lacks a “call-to-action” for the consumer to buy, yet investors have turned bullish on a few key players, such as Coach and Kate Spade, viewing these brands as relative bright spots. Stalling the market is the more cautious consumer-spending environment — and shoppers’ seeming unwillingness to buy fashion products — which could trigger even more promotions this spring and further pinch the bottom line of major brands.

Handbag stocks got a much-welcomed lift last week when Coach’s fiscal second-quarter earnings beat analysts’ expectations and gave investors hope that the other accessories brands would have similarly good results. In the two days following Coach’s earnings last Tuesday, Michael Kors Holdings’ stock leaped 6 percent while Kate Spade added 3.5 percent in value and Vera Bradley jumped more than 4 percent.

While Coach’s earnings per share of 68 cents were 2 cents better than consensus estimates, North American comparable-store sales dropped 4 percent, the eleventh quarter of decline, although the best performance in 24 months. So in traditional Wall Street fashion, not terribly bad results was cause for celebration. Most analysts were pleased that Coach’s turnaround efforts seemed to be taking hold and that the company was moving in the right direction under chief executive officer Victor Luis and executive creative director Stuart Vevers.

This week will provide a further temperature reading of the accessories market when Kors weighs in with its results on Tuesday. Kate Spade’s numbers will be out next month.

Regardless of whether those companies show stronger performances, the overall sense of the market is that accessories aren’t the surefire revenue generator they used to be. Gone are the days when shoppers would rush to stores to buy the latest “It” bag or shoe and accessories, like apparel, have suffered from the overall consumer ennui toward fashion.

At least one industry observer says the Internet has thwarted the shelf life of the segment.

For the high-end sector, there seems to be a somewhat confused and “oversaturated” market of designs that evoke the minimalism of Céline and the more-is-more aesthetic now signature to designs by Gucci under creative director Alessandro Michele and Fendi — giving the consumer no clear trend-driven incentive to buy.

“Handbags have been a hot, call-to-action-type purchase, but now customers are looking for versatility and it’s resulted in very subtle trend and branding, which makes it less urgent to update your bag,” said Robert Burke, chief executive officer of fashion industry consulting firm Robert Burke Associates. “What happens when retail is shaky is that customers go back and shop their closet and see what they have.”

“There is definitely a glut of merchandise without a point of view,” agreed Sarah Blair, Barneys New York’s senior vice president, divisional merchandise manager for shoes and bags. “Consumers are looking for newness and something with a good price value. This is not the days when they would buy the same bag in a new color. It used to be that brands were driven by an iconic bag in a plethora of colors, but that trend has plateaued.”

Neiman Marcus’ fashion director for women’s accessories, Ana Maria Pimentel, said: “I think sometimes when the economy fluctuates, designers think it’s easier to be safe, but it’s always best to step it up.”

Pimentel said there is still a “hunger” for accessories, though. “I think where we have seen success is when there is newness; she is not holding back if the product is new and emotional — I don’t think she is even being price-conscious if we are giving her a reason to buy.

“We have seen her slow in things that are stagnant and haven’t changed,” Pimentel added.

In an effort to stir emotion and design persona, labels like Fendi have stepped away from more classic, pared-down styles in favor of novelty bags fabricated in bright colors, with interchangeable straps and charms. “It’s so emotional and cute — people are really responding to that cheerfulness,” said Blair.

She also pointed to Altuzarra’s new collection of saddle bags, Loewe’s small elephant-shaped pouches, and Chloé as strong performers. Heritage labels including Delvaux and Mark Cross continue to entice consumers, she said.

But Burke said the novelty, accessory-for-your-accessory model that Fendi and others is promoting has done the larger market a disservice.
“What worries me about these novelty styles and the ability to accessorize your bag with a strap or ornament, is it means that customers are using an existing purchase…so it may be a reality from a retail perspective that these accessories mean that they don’t have to buy another bag,” he said.
Burke, like many others in the industry, said designs’ overexposure on social media often smothers a design’s success before it hits retail shelves. “Customers are looking at bags prior to delivery and are tired of it [by the time it gets to the store]. It tarnishes in some ways the impulse of a bag purchase,” he said.
“Bags had a lot more longevity before the Internet,” Burke continued. “If you think of the Fendi Baguette bag, it had a very long run. The shelf life for bags today is extremely short because of their exposure online.” He said a cocktail of “design, trendiness and exclusivity” is what now drives a bag’s success.

According to Blair: “It’s a volume business with high margins. I think a lot of people and designers are trying to get involved in this type of business.”

Just a few years ago, the launch of an accessories collection seemed like the surest way to bolster a designer’s bottom line — resulting in an explosion of merchandise. Now analysts are taking more of a wait-and-see approach — even for blockbuster brands like Kors.

Oliver Chen at Cowan & Co. wrote, “We note a cautious read-through for [Michael Kors] and Kate Spade, given Coach’s estimates that the North American premium women’s handbag and accessories market was essentially flat in the December quarter, with unit growth remaining positive, offset by lower [average unit retail]s due to heightened discounting activity.”

Chen said he has “concerns that [Michael Kors] could be under promotional risk, given management’s commentary on competition intensifying and driving higher levels of promotions than anticipated, notably in the outlet and wholesale channels.”

The consensus from FactSet for Kors’ third-quarter results is for $1.46 in earnings and sales of $1.35 billion. That would be lower than the earnings for the third quarter of 2015 of $1.48, but sales would be higher than last year’s third quarter, which came in at $1.31 billion. The average price target amongst analysts is $49.26. Unlike Coach, Kors is very promotional on its Web site, with many handbags marked down 50 percent.

David Schick of Stifel expects a challenging quarter from Kors, and is below Street estimates for earnings. “Our comp estimate reflects our concern that [Michael Kors] is reaching a saturation point in North America handbags,” wrote Schick. His survey told him that more shoppers intended to purchase from Coach than at Kors. It could be because Kors’ handbag line is mostly on the large size, whereas women’s preference is trending to smaller sizes.

Kate Spade is set to report its fourth-quarter results on March 1 before the market opens and analysts are expecting earnings of 32 cents a share on sales of $441 million. Both of those estimates are higher than the numbers delivered for the fourth quarter of 2014. The average price target on the stock is $28.06. Chen wrote, “We continue to view [Coach] as our favorite handbag name, but we still like Kate Spade, as we feel the brand is best prepared to weather a tough sector backdrop on elastic category expansion, prudent promos and controlled distribution.”

Wedbush Securities was also bullish on Kate Spade. At the end of December, the analysts wrote, “Our checks have consistently noted [Kate Spade] as the least promotional and best merchandised handbag brand compared to peers.” Kate Spade’s shareholders need for the company’s fortunes to change — the stock has fallen 46 percent over the past year, although in the last five days it has gained 6 percent. Most of that increase has come after Coach’s earnings.

Vera Bradley doesn’t report earnings until March 9, but that isn’t keeping investors from hoping for the best. The company has had very good success with its leather bags and the company guided the Street higher with its fiscal-year estimates. Gross margins were guided higher as well. Chen wrote, “We’re encouraged by solid third-quarter performance given better-than-planned revenues on reduced promo activity and disciplined expense management.”