Retail Podcast 315: Joe and John Gaither on Differentiating Your Product

Joe and John Gaither on Differentiating Your Product

Bob Phibbs interviewed Joe and John Gaither of In this episode Bob, John and Joe talked about differentiating your products and allowing your products to speak for themselves. 


Tell me something good about retail

Joe and John Gaither on Differentiating Your Product



Bob: Welcome John and Joe Gaither with feetures, a brand that manufactures active socks, sold in over 1500 stores in the U.S.

John: Thank you. Great to be here. Thanks, Bob.

Bob: Who are you guys and what do you have to do with retail?

John: I'm John Gaither. We work with feetures. It's a family owned and operated business that our father started back in 2002. Feetures is a performance sock brand. We make products for runners and other athletes. And also for casual, everyday use. When our dad started the business, we focused on building relationships with specialty retailers, specialty running stores, and specialty footwear and sporting goods stores, and built our business with this traditional wholesale business model.

Obviously today we've started to expand in some other channels, but we sell in over, probably 5,000 retailers worldwide. So, we've got a tremendous diverse group of retailers that we deal with.

Bob: So when did your brand start?

John: 2002 with our father.

Bob: So he just wakes up one day and he says, you know what? I think I want to get into that. So how did he see the opportunity for this? Because yeah, running is certainly been popular and certainly is, but there's a lot of competition out there from a lot of different types of socks. What was the inspiration and then how does feetures fit into that?

John: Sure. Absolutely. So he had previously worked in a manufacturing business, also a family business that was started by our great-grandfather, I believe, going back to 1912 and that business was making products for other brands. They were doing private label programs for some of the bigger brands - ladies and sports stocks as well. That all ended around this time in early around 2000 and he had to start over and sought out the idea to create a brand himself.

So instead of making products for other people, creating a brand based on performance, and at the very premium end of the sock category using some of his knowledge of manufacturing, but also his relationships with some independent reps in the U S and even some retailers. So he launched the idea for feetures and sought out a manufacturing partner.

He didn't want to be a manufacturer himself and wanted to focus on the sales and marketing side of things, the things that he enjoyed from his previous business. And so, he essentially launched with that simple idea.

Bob: Nice. And so Joe, you're the marketing guy, right?

Joe: That's correct.

Bob: And John, you're the product guy, right?

John: That's right.

Bob: I imagine you guys are both runners and so you experiment this on yourselves?

John: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean we are sort of the ultimate test subjects. We both run and we've got a group of employees who've been a large part. We’re sort of the first test subjects for all the products that we make. And obviously we know if the products are marketed for us, then they're not going to work for customers. We were the first to vet everything we take to market. And that's also one of the great things about our retail partnerships is that the run specialty retailers, those guys are experts, they live running more than anybody, and they're also a very great test subject for us. And feedback from them keeps us really in touch with our products and how they're being used.

Bob: So how do you get the feedback from them? Do you go and visit your independent retailers? Do you just send out a survey once a year and say, what do you think of our stuff?

John: We were in the market very frequently. Probably more than most brands are touching. I'm based with these guys face to face. And we have a sales team, our dad actually leads the sales at the highest level and he's out in the market constantly. He's on a trip right now to visit a retailer, and so we're just seeing these guys and we're talking to them on a daily basis, getting feedback.

Bob: So your dad is still a salesman?

John: Yes. The ultimate salesman. You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Bob: That's it. That's the key. I think that omnichannel is everywhere. And I think for a manufacturer to be successful today, you still have to execute being brilliant on the basics, don't you? I mean, it still does come down to relationship. It still comes down to, if we're going to come to market, it's got to be better than the other guys. And somehow that's going to be based on your insights. But also, it's kind of a partnership, isn't it? So can you give me a time when, um, something you heard from one of your clients actually made a difference?

John: We launched with the Assad, it was a more traditional side, had some unique features. We had some of our really good retailers, and they said, “hey, you guys are great, but we think there's an opportunity for even more premium sock that has maybe some increased features and benefits.”

We took that to heart and worked with our manufacturing partners to come up with -

Bob: What does that mean? They didn't just say, “we need somebody with more features and benefits. Right?” So, what was it?

John: Yeah. So, the foundation of our brand is fit. And so again, we've used Lycra to help contour to the foot, but they really said, “hey, we think it could be an even more customized fit.” And specifically talked about socks for the design, for both the left and right foot.

And so we'd seen some products from a few other brands out in the market, but we felt like they were sort of more smoke and mirrors. They didn't really deliver real benefits to the consumer, but we focused on this idea of a true left and right custom fit. And with the help of our manufacturing partner, developed some new technology where we created this unique construction that provides targeted compression and the instep of both the left and right foot. And today, that product category makes up over 65% of our total business.

Bob: See, and I'm not a runner. I used to be in high school and doing hurdles and things like that, but I'm just not a professional runner, so I don't even know that was even possible.

I'm an old shoe dog. I mean, I put myself through college selling shoes. So, I always knew that the left and the right never matched. And it was always a tradeoff, wasn't it? Like, “we'll try to stretch it out or something.” The performance athlete notices that difference. And then you're not selling your socks three for one or something. How would you would describe your socks over somebody else's?

John: As John mentioned, custom like fit. We're using what we call targeted compression, which is zone specific compression in the arch of the foot, which provides unsurpassed fit and support. So, you feel it when you slip it on, you feel the way that it hugs your feet. That's the term that most people use to describe the way our socks fit.

One of the key product qualities that was a differentiator, is that our socks were seamless. So traditionally socks are knitted on machines and finished with a bulky stitching at the end, at the toe closure. Our dad realized that he wanted to make a truly performance sock. It needed to be seamless so that you didn't have that irritation across the top of your foot when you're running or working out or playing sports, doing whatever.

That product characteristic was really important, along with moisture wicking and using various performance fibers that wick moisture, unlike cotton, which absorbs moisture and sits on your foot and can make the sock lose shape and cause bunching and irritation.

Bob: The thing that always gets me is the number of missed sales for socks.

John: Right.

Bob: That must drive you nuts. Because we buy a new pair of shoes. Two or three pairs of new socks should be a given, but people are like, “Oh no, that would be pushy.” And yet you don't really get the benefit of these. They're not buying two for one pair of shoes at Payless that they could get for under 50 bucks. How do you get to that associate level? To drive sales, because to me, that's the key, right? The owner sees that. They get it, they've made the commitment, they made the buy, they met you at a show, they met your dad. So how do you drive that down to the associate level?

John: It's a great point. And we believe wholeheartedly in that idea that socks are really important category for retailers. And there's a lot of opportunity and there's a lot of missed sales right now, so we're constantly educating them.

Number one, identifying the opportunity that you just mentioned, helping to point out that there should be multiple socks sales per every shoe transaction, and we actually use this. Soft tissue ratio and try to get our retailers to track that and be aware of where they stand with that ratio and make them aware of the opportunity of improving that.

Because what you do is you grow your business, but you're improving the customer experience. We believe strongly that staff education is critical to our retail business. And we identified early on that communicating to staff about the importance of socks and the value of the customer experience and educating them about our products was going to be critical to our success.

And so we created programs to incentivize staff to educate themselves. We have our reps constantly out in the marketplace disseminating training materials, hosting clinics, giving wet socks away. I mean, experiencing the product is the first level of education, and that's been a huge part of our brand and our marketing was constantly getting product on people's feet.

Joe: Just to add to that, you know, we created this program a couple of years ago. Step up your side game. And the whole idea was that we were trying to help educate retailers and their staff associates about the importance of socks, about the opportunity and trying to help them do a better job of presenting socks to the customer and ultimately selling socks to the customer.

 John:  The focus of it was driving total socks sales. It wasn't even just about driving Feetures, socks sales, but it was lifting the whole category up. And ultimately, we know if there's more socks, they're going to sell more features socks.

But the point is, we know that it starts with the staff associate and it's one of those things that we continue to focus on, finding ways to engage them and help educate them to help them do a better job selling socks. And you mentioned this idea of being pushy, and this is important, and that's one of the things that we're constantly trying to educate associates about, is that if they're not selling the customer on the benefits of performance socks or high-quality, premium soft socks, they're doing them a disservice because the purchase of a high quality premium shoe is often mitigated by low quality socks. And so, it's actually a disservice to not at least take the time to have the conversation. And we say it's really important in that process to actually get the customers to try the product.

And, and we spend a lot of money actually getting stocks to retailers for that purpose, just as try ons in the fitting process.

Bob: Well that’s always the key. If you can show the difference. You talked about you have a sock to shoe ratio, a goal, and I think that's a great idea. I think so many times people assume, “well, they already have socks, they don't need socks.” What's an average pair of your socks run? I mean, just in general at retail, what are we talking?

John:  Best-selling style - styles are $16 at retail.

Bob: So, you're up there with smart wool and some of the other ones that people would be used to. One of the challenges I used to have with cowboy boots, you'd see a guy come in and a pair of five for our Camo slip ons, you know? And then they'd say, “Oh, I just need a cheap pair of boots cause I'm just going somewhere.” It's like, dude, if your feet are used to this, they're not going to be used to a cheap pair of boots. It's going to be worse. But we'd always start with the sock, because we don't have all that padding all the way around it.

The heels are a little worn at one place or to your point, if it has the same at the end, ultimately, they're not going to make the purchase.  God forbid, I used to take triune socks, I'd have to wash them, “Oh, how often do you wash them?” You'd say, “Oh, we wash them every day,” and it might be like once a month, but we had to instruct employees like, “if you're going to make this purchase anyway, you might as well start with the sock and not make that as an add on.” I'm helping you sell your socks here today. Let me explain how we work here today. The first thing we want to start with is a performance sock because you're looking at an elite performance tool for your running.

It all starts with the fit - really starts with the sock. So, these run about 16 bucks, whether you buy it from us or not. You should at least have a pair of these in your arsenals. That sound good. It does? Good. You've already got a yes. You've started the conversation with a yes.

Right? So now it makes that much easier for you to sell the actual shoe underneath it, but you've got to change the dialogue, understanding that if you start that way, then you're really making that employee understand. The first hurdle is getting the new sock on their feet and then everything else becomes easier.

John: We couldn't agree more. That's exactly how we feel about the process, and that's how we instruct our retail partners.

Bob: How do you market to independent retailers? Because I know you had Dick's and Dick's would certainly be an easier sale. You sell one to the many, but you're dealing with a niche of a niche. So how do you end up getting a retailer to understand what makes you different?

Joe: First of all, I'd just say that in the beginning, my dad hired a group of independent sales reps spread out throughout the country to be able to go out, and those guys and women had relationships with the local retailers.

John: And so they were able to go out and pitch our products. And obviously he would go out and help support their efforts. To Joe's point, it's our number one selling - it has always been the product. So you go out and you tell them what makes us different, why our products are unique, and you talk about the features and benefits, but ultimately on every visit, whether it was my dad or one of us, or a sales rep, we're always leaving product behind, you know, and it's kind of like, even if you don't believe what we're telling you - wear this product and then we'll check back with you in a couple of weeks to see what you thought about it. Because in our experience, 99% of the time, the person is going to have a really great experience with the product. You still are faced with the challenge that every retailer is going to tell you they don't need another sock brand.

They've already got three or four site brands. They think they've sort of got a cupboard. And even with that, it's still a challenge. But we found that with persistence and eventually with the strength of the product, we're able to get an opportunity with these guys.

Bob: Ultimately, you're adding a category, right? You're adding a luxury performance, personalized, customized product to a mix that you'd probably have been more mass market, sounds like.

John: We said that we're telling retailers that our hope is that by bringing in feetures, we're going to help lift your total sock sales, lift the category up, as opposed to just trading sales from one brand to another. We know that ultimately the retailer wants to feel like they're going to make their site business as a whole stronger by bringing a new brand in.

Bob: That’s a great point too. I mean, because they could buy your brand and something else too. It doesn't have to be an either war.

John: Exactly. And that's been an important part of our business model all along and has been this idea of partnership and helping retailers grow their business.

And you know, that resonates throughout our whole company. Customer service has always been a huge part of who we are and we go above and beyond to support retailers to provide them with the tools that they need to provide an easy customer experience to make their job easier. I mean, that's always been an objective of ours. And so, selling retailers on this idea that we're in it for the long haul, that we're there to support the brand, not just to sell them a product and turn around and go to another retailer and forget about them. We're, back in the store at the ground level supporting the brand and supporting their business.

John: In terms of our customer service and our importance on taking care of the customer, we have a lifetime guarantee that we put on all of our products. We get these sometimes often crazy consumer returns or consumers that they’ve sent us product back and it's clear that they've watched it and they've used bleach and they've totally destroyed the product, and yet we say ultimately, “hey, you bought our product, you're saying it didn't live up to your expectations, we're going to replace it for you. No questions asked. And we do that time and again, in part because we know how hard it is to win over a new customer. And so, what we do that the last thing we want to do is walk a customer away to another brand because some how they weren't totally satisfied with our products.

And so even when we get these returns, which happens not totally infrequently, where it's just some sort of crazy thing where the product didn't really fail, but they say they weren't satisfied, we go above and beyond to replace those socks and leave that consumer happy.

Bob: So is there a time when things weren't going well you remember that you can tell us about?

John: Yeah, absolutely. We've got a few stories like that. One in particular was when I first started in the business, I was out on the road visiting customers and making sales calls and educating consumers and associates about our products.

I was in Arizona at a running store and really excited to make a sales call to talk to a customer that was actually carrying our products. And, just doing a little bit of business with this at the time, I walked in, announced myself as a feetures representative.

And wanted to talk to them about their business with us. I could tell their reaction wasn't a good one. And immediately they announced it to someone in the back room that I was the feetures representative and a guy comes walking out and continues to tell me about a really bad experience he had with our products during a race event.

He was running in a triathlon, and I think it was maybe even an iron man where he's running a full marathon. He had a bad experience where he got a terrible blister actually on his foot. And you know, one of our brand promises is that we prevent blisters. Obviously, we can't one hundred percent guarantee that every time, because there's this unique combination of the foot, the shoe and the sock all together that can sometimes cause irritation. But he just laid into me about our product performance and how terrible his experience was. And you know, I sat there sort of taking it and stood strong and continued to tell him that that was a unique experience that we were very confident in our product technology and the performance of our products.

And that it didn't happen often and I was really apologetic. I mean, 100% that should not happen. And we were very sorry, and I offered to go above and beyond and refund his race fees and help him to feel better about the fact that that happened. And continued to tell him that we believe strongly in our products and that he shouldn't lose confidence in our brand and our products because of that singular event and that shouldn't have happened. And that he shouldn't lose confidence in our products and our brand. And that I believed strongly that if he continued to give us a chance that we would perform differently and that he should give us another chance.

And he respected the fact that I stood strong, that I believe so passionately in our products and that I was able to convey to him that that was a unique, bad experience. And we went on to grow our business together and he's a good customer of ours today.

Bob: That's great. We're getting to end of our time together. So, tell me something good about retail that could either be Joe or John. What's something good about retail?

Joe: Like I said earlier, retailers giving us feedback about our products is critical to our business, and we’re constantly evolving our products based on retail feedback.

But really the greatest thing is that retailers are brand builders. I mean, they're the guys talking to consumers every day. They've got traffic in their stores they've got a local community. We've connected with so many great people in these communities through these retailers. And they have built our brand for us a hundred percent. We owe our brand strength to retail partnerships, and we continue to want to work with retailers at the store level, at the grassroots, local community level because they have such strong ties to their communities and such loyal customer following, and they're experts at what they do.

Bob: So how can they find out more about you guys and your wonderful active socks.

John: Absolutely. Well, visit

Bob: And by the way, it's not spelled the way you think it is.

John: That's correct. It's F E E T U R E S features. I actually came up with the name myself. I'll take a little credit there, I was 15 at the time too, but also visit your local retailer and if they're not carrying feetures, encourage them to do so. But hopefully, hopefully you'll see a big wall of feeture socks in there.

Bob: Perfect. Well thanks guys for your time today. I really appreciate

John: Excellent. Thank you so much.


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