The Thrill of De-Feet
What role are socks playing in this unique environment? The Team Insight Sock Vendor Roundtable weighs in.
Let’s start with the topic on everyone’s minds. How has the COVID-19 team sports environment impacted the sock business in 2020?
Ashleigh Brown: Like anyone doing business in the team sports market, 2020 has been a difficult year for us. We were forced to downsize our admin and warehouse teams. As a family-owned business, our team is part of our family. This made a difficult decision even more painful.
Josh Wintermantel: Our company has seen a dramatic decrease in sales, as we focus only on athletic socks for teams.
Brad Davis: It had a massive impact early on. If sports aren’t being played, team socks are being purchased. That said, we have seen a steady month-over-month incline since June. September saw our team business reaching 87 percent of last year’s numbers. With some sports starting later and others starting in January we expect this trend to continue.
Christian Stagg: If nothing else, this pandemic has brought a new sense of risk analysis and a large majority of our dealers have been ordering product on an as-need basis rather than larger booking orders of the past. With this, we’ve seen a drastic increase in custom sock orders.
Jesse Baldwin: Like most of our peers, our business has seen a downturn in 2020 — if for nothing else, simply because there were less opportunities for organized sports to be played. The screeching halt to spring sports that we all witnessed drastically altered the sell-through of inventories and ultimately resulted in a weakened fall booking season. Buyers have been more hesitant to take on their typical inventory replenishments and have instead opted to order with more of an at-once, team-by-team, fill-in mindset.
Josh Higgins: The COVID-19 pandemic cut spring sports short and made fall very uncertain. We ended up with a shorter, more abrupt season on both ends of the shut down. So, it’s obvious that without stores and team sports, sales were dramatically affected. On the flip side, we did see a rise in consumer interest in being involved in outdoor recreation. More people were looking to sport for something to be involved in during these times.
As a result, what is driving the business for team dealers?
Baldwin: Socks are still, and will always be, an essential part of every athletic uniform. As sports continue to make a comeback, the demand will come right along with it. Dealers can count on the fact that every customer walking through their doors or visiting their website has a need for what we have to offer.
Stagg: As sports have come back in most areas, they seemingly start up immediately. Due to the “need it quick, need it now” nature of team resumptions, speed-to-market is king, regardless if ordering stock or custom socks.
Davis: My assumption would be PPE. In speaking with dealers’ schools, sports and other activities are all investing in face masks, giving the dealers an opportunity to sell this product. If they are being creative I’m sure they are finding other pockets as well. We have seen some success in the promotional market. There are some industries who have done extremely well through the pandemic and are purchasing employee gifts, etc.
Wintermantel: Return customers are driving the business. It’s difficult to have the same customer acquisition cost for marketing campaigns.
Brown: While many companies transitioned to PPE products, such as masks, we focused on developing innovations in socks. We are fortunate to sell in markets outside of team sports and that has been a tremendous help in 2020. I would encourage anyone to have diversity in their markets. Are you selling corporate wear, workwear?
Dealers tell us there has been more late ordering and, as a result, more demand for in-stock socks rather than custom. Has that been the case for you?
Davis: That has definitely been the case and we have worked hard to ramp up production for stock. Our focus will continue to be on this leading into the spring season.
Brown: We have seen an uptick in sales of in-stock socks. But with team sports down, we have manufacturing capacity available to turn custom socks very quickly. That has helped many of our customers over-service their own customers.
Higgins: We offer custom products on a case-by-case basis. We have always offered a 3D printing process, low minimums, and short lead times, and that has kept us competitive in the custom market. We have a happy balance between custom capabilities, and in-stock variety.
Wintermantel: Yes, we have noticed that trend. However, because SocksQuick can make orders in five to 10 days, we have still been able to do custom orders during COVID.
Baldwin: This has absolutely been the case for PearSox. As we quarantined and reflected on how the changing environment could affect our business, we anticipated this trend of smaller, incremental, last-minute orders and set forth amended protocols to accommodate these new buying patterns.
A team sock seems to be much more than a sock these days — equal parts fashion statement, compression and performance sock. What is your definition of an expanded sock business for the team business?
Davis: It is certainly all of these things wrapped into one. It offers performance on the field, but is also something the athlete would wear off the field.
Brown: An expanded sock business for the team business includes compression, performance, basics, dress/casual for corporate and spirit wear. Team dealers should have options to meet all of these needs.
Wintermantel: Team dealers should offer a custom sock because it increases their margin per participant, often encouraging multiple pairs to be purchased. Simply put, it raises sales. Players are willing to pay several more dollars because of how unique a custom sock is.
Stagg: Within the team industry there’s now a sock for every occasion and application. It’s become so much more than “pick your height and color.” Customization has become more in-depth to add to the team’s fashion statement. Athletes are looking at materials and construction features more now than ever.
Higgins: Our Socks with Purpose are a great illustration of this market shift. When we first launched socks, we put our socks under the Socks with Purpose umbrella to summarize our philosophy that socks can do more than just cover your feet. That purpose can be the black crew sock with a casual sneaker with light compression or the targeted compression sock that combats specific conditions like Plantar Fasciitis, shin splints or even Turf Toe. As we see the market grow, companies will need to be cognizant that consumers will want socks that do more for them.
Is the team sock business still one of the hottest, highest margin businesses for team dealers?
Stagg: Without a doubt, yes. The excitement and demand for flashy team socks is just as important as the rest of the uniform at all levels and is a much more budget-friendly purchase for the team, player and the dealer. The average cost of a sock for a team compared with all other product-related costs to play a sport will show that socks are still one of the lowest ticket items financially for the athlete and team, but provide the highest margins for the team dealer. Once a consumer visualizes their uniform with and without a team sock, they will buy the sock every time.
Higgins: Yes. Socks are essential and are gaining recognition for all the benefits athletes receive from finding that one favorite sock that they keep coming back to.
Baldwin: I can answer this one in one word – yes! In an industry where high margins are increasingly difficult to obtain, socks are routinely earning our customers a keystone.
Wintermantel: Yes. We see custom socks get sold for $9-$15 per pair to the schools. Socks continue to be a fad for youth athletes.
Brown: While not the highest price point item dealers will sell, socks consistently offer the highest margins of most any product in the team sports market.
Davis: The margins should definitely still be there for the dealer, particularly if they are focusing on custom and/or performance products.
Finally, what advice would you give to team dealers to help them sell more socks?
Davis: For 2021, stay up to speed on stock product options so when opportunities do arise they can jump on them quickly.
Brown: Made in the USA has never been more important in consumers’ minds. Make sure when you have USA-made products, bring that to your customer’s attention. And dealers should make sure their supply chains are stable. Team dealers should evaluate whether trade policy, or heaven forbid, another virus will affect their ability to get product.
Wintermantel: To sell more socks, deliver custom orders quickly. This allows teams to confidently place second and even third orders during the season.
Higgins: Dealers will benefit from differentiation. They need to look for ways to offer consumers something different, something they won’t find at the big-box chains. We like to think our Socks with Purpose are just that. We are exclusively independent and specialty retail, but we offer life-changing pain relief and prevention for athletes that sets us apart from the standard socks you’ll find elsewhere.
Baldwin: Simply include at least one pair of socks to every organization you work with. As basic as that recommendation is, it still shocks me to learn how frequently socks are overlooked in the sales process. Every webstore, every booster club, every Marathon/5K event, every customer period should be offered a pair of socks. Just by offering this option, you will see your sales in this space skyrocket.
Stagg: Remember that everyone wears socks and if you don’t sell them, they will buy socks somewhere because they need socks. Also, learn what you truly can do with the category as a whole. The customization and options are more extensive than they’ve ever been, and as a team dealer, you sell socks for you — to earn back margins. Do not leave them out of your equation.