Smartwool offers new line of socks

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— The marketing staff at SmartWool identified a national trend in outdoor sporting goods and the Adrenaline is already flowing. In fact, by November, company executivess hope the Adrenaline is flowing right out the door of the company's textile plant.

Adrenaline is the name given to a new line of SmartWool socks intended to fill a perceived gap in lines of merchandise that are garnering increasing display space in the nation's high-end outdoor chains, such as REI and EMS.

Rob Shoaf, brand manager for Adrenaline socks, said the company did not intend to release the new line until March 2004. However, after it got feedback on product samples from wholesale buyers, it advanced the timetable. It ramped up production on two of eight sock models to get them in stores in time for holiday buying. Orders at outdoor buying shows easily exceeded the company's expectations, Shoaf said.

"It's the biggest product launch we've ever had for our socks," Shoaf said.

The trend driving the Adrenaline line is a new breed of outdoor enthusiasts who pursue multiple outdoor endurance sports -- often several in one day. SmartWool and other companies have dubbed them the OXT crowd, shorthand for outdoor cross training. Rather than slipping their feet into a 5-pound pair of hiking boots and shrugging into a full-size backpack stuffed with 55 pounds of gear for a trip into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, the OXT customer is likely to travel light. After spending six hours trail running in Zirkel, they would be likely ride a mountain bike back to the tent. If there's time in the evening, they might go fishing next to a campsite on the Elk River. SmartWool hopes their socks will meet the needs of all those activities and won't come off until the end of the day.

By trading in heavy boots for lighter approach shoes, adventure athletes gain more agility and range of motion.

"Heavy hiking boots actually change your walking motion," Shoaf observed. "What you lose (by going to an approach shoe) is protection. It's a calculated risk."

"There are two different markets," Shoaf said. "There are mountaineers who are still doing it the old-fashioned way. The second market includes people who are time crunched."

The Adrenaline line has been carefully designed to fit in with this lighter approach to the outdoors, while retaining the benefits of the natural merino wool fibers that have always been the hallmark of SmartWool's socks.

Senior Product Manager Glenn Buchan designed the new socks. He said recent improvements in weaving machines provide the ability to create less bulky wool socks.

"The new machinery allows us to do things we couldn't do five years ago," Buchan said. "They give us more versatility in knitting."

SmartWool depends upon merino wool with fine fibers to make its socks. The new machines can take a finer gauge yarn and locate different knits on the sock with great precision. That has allowed SmartWool to design ribbed arch braces right above the heel and under the tongue of a shoe. The ribbing helps to keep the socks from sagging and bunching up on a wet muddy trail run, Shoaf said. He believes product testing indicates the socks help endurance racers keep their feet in good condition.

SmartWool traditionally has achieved a high degree of padding in its socks through the use of a looped "terry" weave on the inside of the sock. Buchan didn't want to sacrifice that padding in his effort to design a less bulky wool sock for lightweight approach shoes.

Deciding athletes don't need as much padding on the top of the foot, he replaced the terry padding in that area with a panel of cross-stitching that is meant to improve upon wool's inherent ability to wick perspiration away from the foot.

SmartWool socks have never been cheap, and consumers will pay an additional $1 to $2 per pair for the refinements in the Adrenaline line.

They range in price from $12.95 to $15.95.

Shoaf, who is a longtime competitive runner and member of a sponsored snowshoe racing team, said it has never been SmartWool's goal to compete with manufacturers of synthetic running socks selling at $6 per three-pack. Instead, the company is trying to earn the loyalty of athletes who are willing to pay more for functionality.

"We want to deliver what we feel is the highest performing fiber in the market today," Shoaf said.

The full line of SmartWool Adrenaline socks will be released to retailers in the spring.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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