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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Gaither family’s sock business isn’t running from its roots

Hickory-based Feetures started 22 years ago by selling socks to runners. Now, the  company hopes to grow by adding customers who live active lifestyles, including golfers, cyclists or tennis players.

“The running market is a small market in the big world, but Feetures is becoming a better known brand,” says Hugh Gaither. He started the business and now runs it with his two sons, John, who took over as CEO in January, and younger son Joe, its chief marketing officer.

The company sold more than 5 million pairs of socks last year, with a retail price averaging about $18. The Gaithers would not discuss specific numbers, but said the business has grown every single year and has doubled in the past three years. The brand is sold in 50 countries and in about 10,000 stores, ranging from national sports-equipment retailers such as Dick’s, REI and Academy Sports to specialty running stores like Carrboro-based Fleet Feet. Online direct-to-customer sales also have increased, he says.

Joe Gaither came up with the brand name when he was a student at Newton-Conover High. North Carolina factories in High Point and Burlington make about 25% of the company’s socks, with the bulk coming from plants in Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan.

So what distinguishes an $18 Feetures sock and white tube socks besides the splash of colors? Feetures socks “hug the foot,” says Hugh Gaither. Targeted compression keeps the sock in place and prevents friction that can lead to blisters. Feetures socks are anatomically designed, meaning just like shoes there’s a “right” sock and a “left” sock, marked with a “L” and an “R.”  

“We say it’s for anyone who wants to be active and we’re making socks for people who want to perform at their best,” he says.

The company employs about 55 workers. About 30 work in its customer service and distribution center at its 40,000-square-foot headquarters in Hickory. The rest, including the three Gaithers, work at a Charlotte office. The move to Charlotte occurred several years ago to be closer to investors and marketers, Hugh Gaither says.

Next fall, Feetures plans to move into its fourth distribution and customer service center. It will be a 60,000-square-foot building under construction by Hickory-based contractor David E. Looper and designed by Holland and Hamrick Architects of Shelby. The would-be new headquarters in the Fairgrove Business Park has a Newton mailing address, although it’s in the Hickory city limits.

Pending continued growth,  Feetures expects to add 25 workers to its distribution and customer service center in the next five years, Joe Gaither says.

The building’s high ceilings give Feetures twice the actual warehouse space, says John Gaither, and will offer technological advantages as the company has transitioned from selling to just smaller retailers, to adding larger stores and now adding more direct sales to customers.

Feetures signed a long-term lease agreement for the building with its owner, Winston-Salem-based Southeastern Industrial Solutions, which is also building a second, 40,000-square-foot spec building on an adjacent lot.

The Gaither family of Catawba County are long-time North Carolina business owners, including Ridgeview, a ladies hosiery and sock manufacturing business in Newton, that closed in 2000 after almost 90 years business.

Hugh Gaither had a wife and three children to support.

“I noticed that sport socks hadn’t changed much, and thought we could make a performance sock,” he says. The business was helped by the running boom, and he now sees a chance to enter what he calls an “active lifestyle” market.

“You don’t want to have to think about your socks, so we sell to active people who don’t want to worry about their socks,” he says.

The company is considering launching a line of performance shirts next year, Joe Gaither adds.

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