By Louise Ramsay
As tools to warm and protect the feet, socks have always had their uses, but rarely have they set the retail world alight. But where once fashion dictated that socks only ever matched the colour of your trouser bottoms, hardly a temptation to consumers, now the opposite is true – with novelty socks currently a must-have on any self respecting hipster’s shopping list.
Indeed, the brighter and more unique your socks are, the cooler it seems you must be – and sports players are as swept up in the craze as everyone else.
“Of course, there have always been novelty socks on the sports market,” Simon Mason, managing director of Mercian Hockey, says. “Hockey players have worn them for about the last 10 years, just not on a particularly big scale. We could see the potential in the market and wanted to get in on the game, but tracking down the right products took some doing.”
Fortune played its hand at the 2014 Hockey World Cup in the Netherlands, where Mason spotted the Hingly sock stand. “It was rammed,” he says. “I went over and met Eric van der Harst, the man behind Hingly. He’s fantastic, full of energy, speaks brilliant English and is a lovely guy. We had a chat and I fell in love with the products.”
Hingly has created 158 different designs for its socks, including neon zebra stripes, despicable Minions and hot-pink panther spots, but it isn’t just the way they look that makes them stand out.
Made from polyamide, elastomer and the trademarked Polycolon, their technical specifications are unique. “The Polycolon foot and high quality fibres used during production resist shrinkage,” Mason says. “The problem for hockey is that if a sock shrinks, it makes getting shin pads into socks difficult. Hingly socks also have a wide upper area, so shin guards fit more comfortably and for longer. The socks also feel really soft, so are comfortable and wick away sweat.”
Unfortunately, Mason missed the deal for a UK contract the first time around. Instead, Dita took up the rights for UK distribution, but after 18 months the company’s set-up changed and the contract came up again in August last year.
Mason says: “I got on a plane to the Netherlands the next day and signed on the dotted line.”
The socks are made in the Netherlands and Hingly has total control of the product. Designs change all the time, keeping the range fresh, with Minions currently the most popular, though camouflage is also popular, as well as neon colours.
“Everyone is wearing them, from nine-year-olds in I Love Hockey socks to men in their forties in camouflage,” Mason says. “That includes me.”
A ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’ item, part of the attraction of the product is the pricing model. Retailing at £12.50 or £10 online, the product isn’t so cheap it’s throwaway, nor prohibitively expensive.
“The socks don’t offer a massive margin, but they sell so well it doesn’t matter,” Mason explains. “We just can’t hold onto stock.”
There are a number of brands with similar products, but only Hingly and established brand WackySox offer such a comprehensive range. Hingly keeps 25 models in stock in the UK and can order the other styles from the company’s Dutch warehouse.
“It means we can provide exciting models from our UK stock, but retailers can also tap into the larger range if they want something different and essentially unique,” Mason explains. “With that product range, the quality of the socks themselves and the large customer base we have, it makes sense for us to offer such a popular product as part of our existing range.”
In terms of competing with the already busy novelty sock market, Mason feels the quality of the product speaks for itself: “The socks already have a huge following in the Netherlands and the extra things, such as innovative display crates, make them an exciting and affordable product, suitable for technical play during sports training and/or games, but also as a fun present or upsell.
“Competition already exists for us in pretty much every area we work in, so we build relationships and provide fantastic service to deliver a full suite of products to our customers in the retail trade. That is exactly the same philosophy in play here, great products with exciting designs, delivered by a committed, professional and knowledgeable team.”
Not sport specific
While perfect for hockey, Hingly socks aren’t sport specific, meaning rugby players, footballers or almost any other athlete you care to mention can get in on the act.
Mason says: “The socks have huge potential and we’re aiming high. Our current push is to get them into high quality chains and Harrods. We’ll also be speaking with retail partners to get contacts, working with buying groups such as Intersport and STAG to explore new avenues, but won’t forget good old fashioned telephone legwork to find new contacts and expand our customer base.”