The improbable new role of the sock as a fashion accessory has shielded Hinckley-based hosiery firm HJ Hall from chill commercial winds.
When the English soccer team trots on to the field for its first match in 1993, its progress will be marked by no one more anxiously than by Mr Neville Hall. Not the team's way with penalties or dummy passes, you understand: Hall will be looking closely at the 22 legs of the players, specially at their 22 well-turned calves. Lest this appear an unseemly preoccupation for a red-blooded male, it should be stressed that his interest will be entirely be professional. The aforementioned calves will, if all goes according to plan, be clad in navy-blue-and-maroon socks - details of the precise design of which are, alas, still classified - manufactured by Hall himself. Never mind England's goal average: one ruck, the merest hint of a droop and Hall will, in the parlance of the terraces, be as sick as a parrot.
Given the evil times currently being endured by the British rag trade, one might reasonably have supposed that Hall's concern for the verticality of his product would be overshadowed by a more pressing fear for the verticality of his profit margins. One would, however, have been wrong. Even if all 22 England socks should fall about their wearers' athletic ankles, Hall can still take comfort from the sprightly financial performance of HJ Hall and Son, the Hinckley-based family hosiery firm of which he is the fourth generation chairman. When Neville Hall took the firm over from his father, Peter, in 1989, its turnover stood around £5 million, with profits of £700,000 or so. Subsumed the following year into a holding company, HJ Sock Group Ltd, and now totally owned by Hall fils, the firm's last year-end results saw turnover topping £9 million. "Profits?" says Hall, merrily. "Well, the office door is open: so let me just quietly say, 'Somewhere in excess of £1 million'."
If this seems a happy enough state of affairs, it should additionally be noted that Hall's triumph has taken place against the backdrop of a generally woeful time for the British sock industry as a whole. On the one hand, branded socks have had to face competition from anonymous, mass-produced imports as well as from the own-brand products of supermarkets and chain retailers. Marks and Spencer's scoffs some 20% of the British market, reckoned in 1990 to stand at £295 million. Worse still, market traders have garnered another 22%, leaving private independents like Hall with a puny 8% sales share overall. Understandably, a number of once-great sockmakers - including the royal knitwear warranties, Wolsey - have recently elected to slip out of the hosiery business altogether, and into something rather more comfortable.
Nor do market trends provide much relief from this general gloom. The average British male (England soccer players apart) still acquires only five new pairs of socks a year, a figure unchanged since the genesis of contemporary sockdom a century ago and apparently carved in stone. The olfactory implications of this depressing fact go some way towards explaining the uneven annual sales spread of the lesser English sock (huge peaks just before Christmas and Father's Day are generated by red-eyed women re-equipping their menfolk in an act of nasal self-defence), a further problem for the hard-pressed hosier.
The real problem is, however, generic rather than topical. Life (if less fragrant than) Gertrude Stein's rose, a sock is a sock is a sock. Given this fact, common sense suggests that success in sock manufacture would tend to lie in the economies of scale of mass production and bulk selling. Niche marketing a product that is almost by definition as near as dammit identical to all other equivalent products on the market should, contrariwise, amount to commercial suicide.
And yet Neville Hall - 70% of whose products are sold under his firm's own brand name - can blithely claim not to know the meaning of the word "recession": "Trading conditions are only ever normal," says Hall, a piece of Harvard Business School sophistry (Hall being an alumnus of that institution) that would make the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, weep with joy.
The reason for this corporate smugness is that Hall's firm has up to now been protected from chill commercial winds by a heady blend of technical expertise and marketing nous. On the one hand, HJ Hall has consistently targeted for its attentions small markets whose specialist requirements would be unlikely to be filled by bulk manufacturers. As well as soccer players (Hall socks also adorn the calves of the Scottish and Irish national teams, which presumably leads to a degree of schizophrenia at Hall during internationals), the firm has, for example, a lucrative slot supplying the hosiery needs of soldiers in various Middle Eastern armies.
Equally, Hall and his marketing director, Lyn Whittaker, have been quick to appreciate the improbably new role of the sock as a fashion accessory. The genesis of the peacock male has opened all sorts of vistas from Hinckley. Hall and Whittaker now chat about catwalks and spring collections with the knowing air of Parisian couturiers and hire designers of international repute to create such new lines as the firm's tartan and argyll ranges: indeed, Hall claims, slightly mysteriously, to have introduced the argyll ankle sock to these shores five years ago. (While on the subject, I am privileged to divulge that next autumn's colours for the podiatrically chic will, according to Whittaker, be "subdued and rustic, less strident than this year's").
Whittaker is also of the sanguine view that Hall's non-existent recession has actually been of benefit to his firm. "A lot of fashion-conscious young men just can't justify spending money on a new suit any more," reasons HJ Hall's sales director. "By buying a new pair of socks, though, they can feel that they've managed to change things at what is perceived as a low cost." Even the firm's traditional and rugged "Countryman" range has found itself inadvertently in vogue thanks to a fashion current among young women (and described by Whittaker, ungratefully, as "appalling") of wearing them under Doctor Marten's boots.
Both men recognise the attendant pitfalls of relying too heavily on the van of fashion, however. As well as aesthetic innovation, Hall has consequently aimed at the more difficult target of finding generic unique selling points for his product.
It is a tendency that has served the family firm well in the past: HJ Hall's "Indestructible" range - which were introduced in the '80s, made of nylon and sold with a 12-month guarantee - gave the company its first break into big-time hosiery manufacture and is still in production, albeit in more vogueish natural fibres. Given that the common sock offers just so much potential for such technological breakthroughs, the firm's latest innovation released last year, christened the "Softop" and quickly patented in Australia, Europe and the US - might well be counted as a stroke of podiatric genius.
Essentially, the Softop's point is that it manages to cling to its wearer's calf without elastication through the craftiness of its weave, thus freeing the aforesaid calf from the unpleasantness of what Whittaker calls "unsightly red lines". (Should this prove insufficient inducement, the socks are also, according to Hall, "as must for people with circulatory problems and varicose veins"). Among grateful ex-sufferers of unsightly red lines are the television presented Derek Jameson, whose on-air complaints about them led to the brisk dispatch of a pair of Softops from Hinckley to his dressing room.
The importance of the consequent plug on prime-time television was much appreciated by the occupants of HJ Hall's boardroom: the words "brand recognition" recur as a sort of mantra in Whittaker's speech, and the firm is known to have the largest advertising spend of any British sock manufacturer - some 3% of turnover - justified by Hall as "expensive but necessary".
This penchant for showmanship explains much of HJ Hall's capacity for survival in a cruel world. The sock as a commodity is sufficiently evolved to make the prospect of actual innovations in its design next to impossible. Given this constraint, the best a manufacturer can hope for is a capacity to convince customers that small innovations are actually meaningful ones. Thus the emphasis on Whittaker's unsightly red lines and the hyperbole (from which, presumably, the word "hype") of such range-names as the "Indestructible". Thus, too, the minimum six-month guarantee which is offered with HJ Hall socks, a piece of marketing legerdemain that Neville Hall is only too pleased to admit results in returns of "under 0.01% of sales".
The problems presently needing attention at Hinckley will not be dispelled by such commercial coups de theatres, however. HJ Hall remains heavily reliant on imported raw materials, largely on Indian cotton and wool from New Zealand. Considerable investment in automation at the firm's old plant and its new, 30,000 sq ft acquisition at Wigston has reduced dependence on such labour intensive practices as hand-linking (reckoned by Hall to have added one selling point to the average pair of socks), thus keeping annual price increases down to a target of half the rate of inflation.
This is important: for all its supposed techno-podiatric wizardry and new-found fashion awareness, the HJ Hall sock is described by its progenitor as a "bread-and-butter" commodity, with a price-sensitivity to match. However, with raw materials accounting for about 70% of the cost of an average sock and a weak pound making raw materials expensive, either retail selling price or margins are going to have to give. Hall claims to have sufficient materials in stock "to keep us happy for a year". Whether his non-existent recession will still be making things difficult in February 1994 is anyone's guess. In any event, minds at Hinckley are, understandably, wonderfully concentrated on sales. "Until four years ago," notes Whittaker, "we dealt mainly with wholesalers: now we deal direct with retailers, under our own brand name. With wholesalers, prices are dictated to you. With retailers it's the other way around."
The logic of this is compelling enough on the domestic front, but there is also - given the present unpleasantnesses attached to being a heavy net importer - a clear need to garner international markets. Exports currently run at only 5% of HJ Hall's total sales, and most of these have come from fortuitous, one-off orders. Neville Hall points out that "we've never sold abroad because we've never had to." Unlike the socks of the average British male, this, at least appears to be one thing that will have to be changed soon.
For reprints of this article, contact Anne Oakley (071) 413 4336.