Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--Despite the burden of shipping and handling charges, socks are showing solid gains this fall as a mail-order business. With some catalog firms charging a minimum $4 handling on orders of less than $25, the cost of a pair of socks takes a significant percentage jump at a time when consumers are value-conscious. But mail-order merchants say the convenience of catalog shopping, the novelties catalogs offer and the fact that size is not a big problem are attracting orders.
Firms are turning to such strategies as gifts-with-purchase, multiple value packs and suggestions that socks be ordered to complement apparel purchases to keep mail-order buys worthwhile.
Foot Traffic, a Kansas City, Mo.-based mail-order business and retailer that specializes in casual legwear, has increased the size of its fall catalog to 24 pages from 18 a year ago and more than tripled its sock offerings, according to Denny Picket, director of merchandising.
Foot Traffic's private label toe socks at $15, Hot Sox's plaid knee-highs at $10, AIM's Grateful Dead crew socks at $8, High Point's Mickey Mouse socks at $8 and EG Smith's cotton boot socks at $10 are some of the key items in a catalog that features 30 vendors.
The company projects double-digit percentage gains in catalog sock sales this season since circulation now exceeds 100,000--a 66 percent jump from last fall, Pickett said. For 1996, Foot Traffic's circulation should reach 200,000.
The average sock order is $32; many customers purchase three-pair packs at $20 to justify the $4 shipping and handling fee, he said.
Shipping charges are $5 on orders ranging from $26 to $50, $6 on orders from $51 to $75, $7 on orders from $76 to $100 and $8 on orders of more than $100.
As a sales incentive, Foot Traffic is giving a cotton canvas tote bag to any customer who makes a purchase of $50 or more. Customers are asked to submit photos of themselves carrying the Foot Traffic tote bag for publication in an upcoming catalog.
"Our catalog continues to be the fastest-growing area of our business," he said. "As far as I know, we're the only fashion and novelty legwear catalog out there."
Kenneth Cole Productions offers 11 styles of socks--six more than last year--in its current catalog. The company, which makes shoes and has a licensed range of accessories and outerwear, mails its catalog to 2 million consumers twice a year.
Catalog sock sales this fall have increased 20 percent so far this year, with herringbone nylon, polypropylene and spandex knee-highs at $5.50, ribbed mohair blend midcalf socks at $14 and wool, cotton and nylon blend midcalf socks at $14.50 the most popular socks, reported Denise Tanzman, director of the catalog. There is a $6.95 shipping and handling charge for all deliveries.
The company generally fields about 30 sock orders each day from consumers on its 24-hour toll-free line.
Looking to increase sock sales, Kenneth Cole's telemarketers suggest consumers purchase legwear with their shoe orders or order more than one pair of legwear.
Tweeds, a division of Hanover Direct in Edgewater, N.J., increased it sock offerings for fall from two styles to six styles. For the first time, socks are featured on a full page opposite a full page of tights. Before, the categories were combined on one page.
Fall sock sales are running 40 percent ahead of last year and the annual sales gain should exceed that figure, boosted by holiday business, according to Lisa Bertha, product manager for accessories and shoes.
A two-pair pack of patterned trouser socks at $15, a two-pair pack of rag socks at $15 and a single pair of merino wool blend knee-highs at $12 are among the best-selling items.
Shipping fees are $4.95 on orders of less than $40, and vary from $7.95 to $14.95 for orders ranging from $40 to more than $300.
Most customers order socks to coordinate with the catalog's ready-to-wear, Bertha said.Talbots offers socks to complement its ready-to-wear and sportswear.
Kathy Staab, vice president, said catalog sock sales have increased by a single-digit percentage in the past year.
"Our whole concept is to wardrobe the customer," she said. "Socks are an add-on purchase. If a woman buys a pair of shoes or pants, she'll pick up the socks to go with it."
Socks retail from $7 for basic private label crew socks to $14 for luxury fiber-blend socks. Private label novelty socks, such as a $9 harvest motif and Halloween-inspired trouser socks currently offered in the fall catalog, have been ringing up sales.
Ribbed socks and cable socks are popular styles, Staab said.
More than 59 million consumers received Talbots' catalog in 1994, but this year's circulation will drop slightly due to increases in paper and postage costs. Talbots' mail-order customers who regularly place orders and make substantial purchases were given priority when the company reduced its circulation.
Despite the reduced circulation, Talbots expects mail-order sales to continue to climb, she said.
J. Crew offers 10 styles of socks, ranging in length from foot socks to thigh-highs. All are sold in single-pair packs except foot socks, sold in two-pair packs.
Shipping and handling fees vary from $4.90 for orders $25 and less, to $9.90 for orders of more than $175.01.
Socks sales are "slightly ahead" of last year, according to a company spokeswoman. Foot socks in a cotton and nylon blend at $5 and foulard cotton and nylon crew-length socks at $10 are the best-selling items.
In the months ahead, the company plans to introduce more colors to its assortment.
Danskin Inc. is still testing the direct-mail market. In conjunction with Hanover Direct, the company is marketing a catalog called "Stance" for irregulars under its Danskin legwear and its licensed Round the Clock hosiery names. Having doubled its circulation since the catalog was tested earlier this year, Danskin plans to send it to 4 million consumers in February, according to Mary Ann Domuracki, president.
"More people buy for convenience now. Shopping for socks and hosiery is not women's favorite shopping experience," she said. "It's a real growth area."

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