Are specialty socks the new necktie?
Robust growth in the category — fueled by novelty motifs, sustainable materials and nifty business models like subscription services — would suggest so.
Of the 500 men surveyed by the Savile Row Co., a London-based retailer that specializes in men’s wear, about 70 percent said they wanted to receive socks for Christmas. “Buying something that is deemed a predictable gift at Christmas doesn’t mean it has to lack style,” said Jeffrey Doltis, owner and managing director of Savile Row Co.
Consumers grew disinterested in basic black and white tube socks about six or seven years ago, and the sockless trend also had its moment.
The global sock market to fell into what Marshal Cohen, chief industry adviser at the NPD Group, called “replenishment-mode.” Consumers were just buying socks to replace old ones and the category didn’t have any real growth. Cohen said some younger consumers — what he referred to as a “sock-less society” — stopped wearing socks altogether.
Specialty socks, from pretty party socks or socks for spinning class, have become a major must-have, driving sales and giving consumers a way to show off their personality without adding too much fashion risk.
The global non-sheer hosiery category was worth $35.3 billion in 2017. That’s up from only $30.4 billion in 2012, according to Euromonitor. The research firm anticipates the category will grow to more than $37 billion by 2022. In the U.S. alone, the sock category is worth about $6 billion.
“It’s a good lesson for sock-makers to recognize,” Cohen said. “Innovation is what drives growth. Newness drives growth. Give consumers something that they don’t already have so they’re not just constantly replenishing their wardrobe and they’ll react to it.
“If the sock makes my life easier, if it’s more comfortable, if it helps me perform better on the court, that’s the kind of stuff that’s going to drive growth,” he said.
Consumers have grown so fond of novelty socks that sales of basic tube socks are dwindling. Both Hanesbrand and Gildan Activewear have reported a decline in sock and hosiery sales this year. Gildan said it was anticipating sock sales to be down by as much as $125 million in 2018.
Other brands are benefiting from the shift.
Sock manufacturer Bombas has grown dramatically since it launched five years ago, ending 2017 with just under $50 million in revenue, according to cofounder and chief executive officer David Heath. Socks specifically for snowboarding, knee-high dress socks made of merino wool, ankle socks and “Sesame Street”-themed kids socks are just some of the options available on the company’s web site.
Boody North America, a private activewear company that makes eco-friendly socks, tops and underwear for both men and women, has also seen solid growth in the sock category, which after three years makes up 10 percent of its business.
David Stern, ceo of Boody, said that was “extraordinary for what we expected to be an add-on category” and that “we were amazed by how quickly the socks moved.”
Stern said Boody’s specialty socks, made from sustainable materials such as viscose bamboo, range from around $7 to just under $15 a pair. But consumers don’t seem to mind paying more.
“It’s not all about a price point,” he said. “People are out there looking for something that’s better, that they can feel good about purchasing.”
Technology is changing the game too, with sock startups offering something new and taking market share from big box retailers like Walmart and Costco.
“Smaller upstarts have a different perspective, whether it’s natural or sustainable or whatever,” said Gerald Storch, ceo of Storch Advisors, a retail advisory group. “And people want to stand out, to be different.”
Some choices include sexy socks, fishnet socks, ankle socks, odor-control socks, socks with toes and moisture-management socks for inclement weather. Blue Q has sassy socks with adult phrases on them. Shoppers can even pay to have their own photos printed on their socks. Medical socks, such as compression and reflexology socks, have also taken to incorporating cute designs on them.
Brands like Joy of Socks and Hot Sox offer fashionable socks and theme socks for holidays. Shoppers can have new socks delivered to their door every month with sock subscription packages like Sock Fancy and Sock Panda. Say It With a Sock’s monthly subscription plan has a double-up option, perfect for couples who want matching socks.
On the other end of the spectrum are luxury socks. Prada’s designer socks range between $100 and $210 a pair. Gucci’s Dapper Dan wool Lurex socks for women retail at $395. The Crystal Interlocking G Stocking are $1,340, also by Gucci.
In an open-collar, more casual society, Boody’s Stern said socks offer an easy outlet for creative expression that neckties offered years ago: “You really can’t show up at work in super loud graphic shirts every day,” he reasoned.