Expensive Handbags Are Going Out of Style

March 16, 2017, 4:00 PM UTC

Like every gold rush, the handbag boom was bound to bust. After years of clocking double-digit growth earlier in the decade, handbag sales in the U.S. have cooled. The $9.3 billion market grew a mere 2% last year, according to Euromonitor International. (That follows a nearly 1% sales decline in 2015.)

Handbag makers have no one to blame but themselves. During the boom, the likes of Michael Kors, Coach, and Kate Spade kept opening stores, expanding their lower-priced assortments, and flooding outlet stores with their wares, all in a bid to outdo one another.

The satchel surfeit led to discounting, which in turn slammed profit margins and cheapened their brands. Adding to the pain was the shift away from big, flashy bags to smaller, discreet, and less expensive cross-body bags.

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A man walks past the Michael Kors store display window at Rockefeller Center in New York City.George Rose—Getty Images
George Rose—Getty Images

Among the major U.S. brands, Coach reacted early to handbag fatigue, going higher-end again. Now half the bags it sells cost more than $400—up from 30% a year ago. Kors is trying to restore its luxury aura by pulling its wares from department stores. And Kate Spade simply put itself up for sale.

The struggling department stores are eager to see the traffic-generating handbag market perk up. “We’ve got to get the big guys on track,” Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren recently said.

It’s not that shoppers don’t want any more bags. Michael Kors CEO John Idol recently said the company had sold 11% more units last quarter. But too much of the product is still heavily discounted, and training shoppers to pay full price again may take a while.

A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Fashion’s Great Handbag Crash.”

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