Suddenly, a dizzying array of socks dazzles us

No matter the sport, if you can't find something to suit your feet, you're just not trying

October 05, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

Forget about the arms race. Those appendages have nothing on feet when it comes to clothing options.

Go into any outdoors store. Stand before the sock display.

"It's a wall of socks," acknowledges Gardner Flanigan, a marketing manager for SmartWool, a major manufacturer.

There are bicycle socks, hunting socks, fishing socks. Trekkers, hikers, light hikers. Skiing, extreme skiing. Snowboarding, extreme snowboarding.

Summer socks for feet that sweat. Winter socks for popsicle toes. Socks for men. Socks for women. Socks for kids.

High tops, low cuts, 'tweeners for people who can't make up their minds.

One manufacturer has even come out with a pair labeled "left" and "right." What happens when two go in the dryer and only one comes out? Who knows.

The proliferation of socks has forced one company to issue a 10-page technical manual with its catalog. Bridgedale, based in Ireland, offers at least 16 different sport-specific styles each season.

Imagine the encyclopedia that Thorlo Inc. would have to publish for its 50 varieties of socks.

"It's a whole new branch of science. I can say my degree helps me," says Olga Rufanova, a saleswoman at REI outdoors outfitter in College Park, who has a master's in math and a Ph.D in sockology. "It's hard to keep up unless you work with it every day."

Rufanova gets on the Internet several times a week to research the latest in foot coverings.

"We carry at least four or five brands, and every brand has four or five types," she says. "You do the math."

Banning the blisters

It wasn't always this way. There was a time not too long ago when people headed for the great outdoors had a choice: white cotton or rag wool.

The white socks soaked up sweat like SpongeBob. The rag variety felt as if they were knitted with steel wool. Either way, blister city.

Then in 1978, Jim Throneburg started running to lose weight. He hated his socks because they made his feet hurt.

But unlike the rest of us, the 6-foot-4 North Carolinian could do something about it. Throneburg, you see, had become president of the family's sock company.

But Thorlo Inc. made socks for the military. Throneburg changed his company with one phone call and changed sock buying forever.

First, his design team made running socks. They followed that with socks for tennis, golf and basketball. Then, they went nuts, knitting stockings for every activity except Christmas.

The foot race was on.

This summer at Outdoor Retailer, the largest outdoor industry trade show in the country, it was impossible to run away from foot soldiers hawking socks: SmartWool, Thorlo, Hot Chilly's, Wigwam, Fox River, Zip It, to name a few.

Although some of the companies have added other products, such as long underwear, their bread and butter remain socks. Company representatives say customers drive the market rather than vice versa.

"Each of the new products that have been designed have been the result of the request of our customers," says Debbie Lazenby, Thorlo business development manager.

Toe-wiggling comfort doesn't come cheaply. The days of 10 pairs of tube socks in a bag for $10 are long gone. That's the price where a single pair of these super socks starts.

The catalog outfitter "Early Winters" offers the "Millionaire's Hiking Socks" from Switzerland for $21.95. Gushes the catalog: "Your feet will feel like a million bucks every time you slip these socks on."

Flanigan says with people paying $100 and more for running and hiking shoes, it is natural that they want to spend money on the layer in between.

High-fiber socks

Why do these socks cost so much? Fibers.

SmartWool and Wigwam, for example, use premier Merino wool. Others, such as Thorlo, rely on proprietary synthetic fibers. But that leads to another confusing decision for a buyer.

Do you like DuPont CoolMax or DuPont Thermastat? Is Sterling's Cresloft better than Noble Fiber's X-Static? And fleece, don't forget the fleece.

Then there are those "Millionaire" models, with their "CoolMax polyester / Merino wool / polyacryl / polypropylene / polyamid / Lycra spandex blend."

These are issues best debated before going to the store.

"I can see it in their eyes if they know what they're doing," says Rufanova. "If I see them picking up packages and putting them down, I ask questions and then decide for them."

In spring 2001, Fox River added to the debate when it began marketing a line of socks for women. The socks, with a narrower heel, more rounded toe and shorter length, took off, with other manufacturers in pursuit.

"Years ago we developed one and took it to retailers and they said, 'Why,' so we didn't do it," says Flanigan. "We got behind on the bandwagon a little bit."

From conception to store shelves, it takes Thorlo two years to bring out a new variety, says Lazenby. Months of testing by machines, employees and consumers precede release.

How far will this go?

Rufanova thinks at some point consumers will pick a brand and style and keep buying it.

Flanigan agrees. "The cushioning and fibers may improve, but I don't see it getting much more specialized."

"They're all pretty good out there," concedes Lazenby. "You want people to find a sock that works for them. I would like to think it would be mine, but people need to evaluate them and test it for themselves."

Says Flanigan: "A pair a day is all we ask."

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