ATHLETIC SOCK MAKERS JOIN THE RACE FOR RETAIL SPACE

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--With women leading a more active lifestyle, the athletic-sock market is becoming more competitive, at levels ranging from the mass market to department stores.
Sporting goods giants such as Nike and Reebok see opportunity in department stores, where activewear is being offered more extensively than before. At the same time, companies like Renfro Corp. and Auburn Hills Hosiery see potential in the mass market with its broadening customer base.
Designers and department store brands have also stepped into the athletic-sock business. As reported, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole, Donna Karan and Danskin introduced athletic-sock collections in the past year.
At least part of the surge can be attributed to women working out more frequently. According to a 1993 survey conducted by the National Sporting Goods Association, which represents 22,000 retailers and 3,000 suppliers, women are more likely than men to exercise at least twice a week. Thomas Doyle, director of research and information for the NSGA, said this year's survey results should make that trend even more evident.
Some vendors, however, say women like the look of the item as much as its function.
"Some women want socks for fitness, tennis or a specific sport. But a lot of them just like the look," according to Susan Clancy, designer for accessories at Reebok.
For 1995, Nike is planning for its women's and men's sock business to increase by 106 percent compared to last year, according to Barbara Scheller, product line manager for the Beaverton, Ore.-based firm.
Last year, sales were up 20 percent compared to 1993, she said.
"We haven't figured out why sales are higher. Foot Locker's sales have increased in all categories," Scheller said. "Maybe the Don Johnson no-socks look has died down some."
Aside from changing to its signature swoosh logo instead of the printed name on its athletic socks, Nike maintains most of its styles from season to season, she said.
With wholesale prices of $5 to $5.50, three-pair packs have generated substantial growth, Scheller said. To build on that business, Nike will introduce a two-pair pack of socks made of cotton and CoolMax nylon at $4.75 for spring 1996.
"The women's business is becoming more and more important. With department stores taking in more sports apparel, we feel we have more potential with those stores," said Kevin Angliss, vice president of marketing for Auburn Hosiery Mills, which produces and distributes sport socks for its licensed Champion, Wilson and Coca-Cola labels.
Angliss said he's planning for a 15 to 20 percent gain for each line.
Converse socks, which wholesale from $1.50 for a cotton turn-cuff to $2.29 for a slouch sock with the company's new shooting star logo, should see some growth in the department store business.
Meanwhile, Wilson's nine-piece sock line, which wholesales from $1.25 for a non-cushioned ped to $2.25 for a CoolMax crew, is performing well at the mass level, Angliss said.
"The mass market holds the most potential for hosiery," he said. "Supermarkets are also an untapped market for socks. They already have a lot of traffic."
Sales for athletic socks account for 40 percent of the Renfro Corp.'s overall volume--a 10 percent increase compared to three years ago, according to Harold Stone, vice president of marketing and sales.
Based in Mt. Airy, N.C., Renfro produces and distributes legwear for men, women and children under its licenses: Sasson, X-AM, Aspen, Vassarette, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gitano, LA Gear and ABC Wide World of Sports, as well as its private label business.
The firm has private label programs with J.C. Penney, Kmart, Target, Sears and Wal Mart, he said. Renfro also produces athletic socks under its licensed Gitano label.
For the past couple of seasons, athletic-sock sales have seen double-digit percentage increases, Stone said.
"Business is much more segmented in the mass market," he said. "In the past, socks were sold rather generically. Now they're more sport specific. More middle-class customers are shopping in the mass stores," Stone added.
To meet the demands of the new mass market customer, Renfro doubled its collection, enhanced cushioning and introduced products with CoolMax nylon and other fibers in the past year, Stone said.
"With the renewed emphasis on athletic socks, the percentage of retail space will increase," he said. "We plan to expand distribution as opposed to increasing our collections. We see additional opportunity in private label with all our customers."
In 1994, athletic sock sales doubled compared to 1993 at K. Bell, the Culver City, Calif.-based sock maker, according to Karen Bell, president. This followed a 60 percent jump in 1993 over the previous year.
K. Bell plans to expand its sporting goods store distribution to the East Coast, she said.
"People are so much more serious about sports--even walkers want a really good sock," she said. "It's an untapped area. Whatever the demand is we'll accommodate it."
The increased competition at the department store level has encouraged Reebok to go after that market more aggressively, Clancy said.
New lengths, additional cushioning, novelty treatments and colors that coordinate with the company's footwear have given the line an updated look, she said.
In 1996, the 12-piece line, which wholesales from $2 for a cotton anklet to $4.50 for a slouch sock, will be scaled back to nine items and will feature Aqua Tech, a fabric treatment that wicks perspiration away from the foot.
"The competition has inspired us to try harder. In the past three years, we've concentrated more on women's sport-specific socks," Clancy said. "We wanted to break them out from looking like men's basic 3-by-1 ribbed socks."
For the past 10 years, Head Sportswear Inc. in Columbia, Md., has been selling its eight-piece sock collection to country club pro shops and specialty stores, said Jennifer Lara, merchandising assistant for tennis and golf.
Designed to coordinate with Head's golf and tennis apparel, the sock line, which wholesales at around $4.75, is sold only to retailers that carry Head apparel. About 55 percent of the retailers who purchase Head apparel also order socks, she said.
"Sales are even compared to last year. There's been an increase in competition," Lara said. "People are more price-conscious. Consumers are not willing to spend more, especially on accessories," she added.
With tennis and golf gaining popularity, Head should see an increase in sales. But the company does not plan to pursue the mass market.
"We're selective with our distribution," Lara said. "We have a loyal band of repeat customers."
Last fall, The Hot Sox Co., which produces its licensed Ralph Lauren hosiery, introduced a Polo Sport collection, designed for running, tennis, basketball and other sports.
Most items in the 20-piece collection wholesale from $3 for golf peds to $6 for cross-country ski socks. The firm also offers a $12.25 Polar fleece sock.
Prior to introducing Polo Sport, the company offered a few basic sport socks within its Ralph Lauren sock collection. Buried toe seams, heel pockets, sewn-down welts and wicking fabric are some of the features, according to Jill Bleifer, sales manager for Polo Ralph Lauren hosiery. Hangtags list the function and benefits of each product, she said.
"It went from being a spectator sock to a full performance sock," she said. "Women are embracing a more active lifestyle."
This spring, Jockey for Her introduced a three-piece athletic collection that features banded arch support and extra cushioning on the heel and toe. Three-pair packs of anklets at $6.50 and crew socks at $7.50 should generate a good deal of business, according to a company spokeswoman.
In 1996, the company plans to increase the collection beyond the existing heavy cotton slouch sock, a crew and an anklet, she said.
Alba-Waldensian, a Valdese, N.C.-based hosiery manufacturer, is testing the athletic-sock market.
For the past six months, the company has been selling athletic socks to 300 country club pro shops, according to Thomas Schuster, president and chief executive officer. Most styles in the six-piece collection retail for $4 to $5.
In addition to its private label goods, Alba-Waldensian produces All Day Long sheers, Big Beautiful Women, large-size hosiery and While You Wait, a maternity line.
If Alba-Waldensian introduces women's athletic socks, Schuster said the category would enhance its existing volume by 20 percent within five years. The company will decide whether to roll out an athletic program for women before the end of the year, he said.
"It's still early but it looks as if it might be the right thing to do," he said. "With the trend to more casual dressing, the business isn't limited to people who play sports. "The look is bigger than the function."

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