Luxury Bamboo Socks, Impeccable Service and Niche Retailing

Over the last few months, I have had a string of conversations with different friends about bright coloured and bold socks commonly referred to as happy socks. In particular, I was trying to understand the rationale behind purchasing them as they are on the pricey side, wearing them as they are rather daring and ofcourse the business mechanics and success of the different fashion brands making these kind of socks. Ironically, following on from these conversations, just over two weeks ago, I was lucky to attend a talk where the stylish Nic Haralambous was sharing the journey he has been on, building his luxury men’s style brand — Nic Harry and some thoughts on e-Commerce in South Africa. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk as I found it to be very practical and quite relevant especially as I have a handful of friends with small businesses that have a retail component to them. Hence I decided to pen this article.

The Why and How

One of Nic’s motivations in starting the Nic Harry brand was that he felt that the sock space in South Africa was boring and lacking in imagination. Typical retailers stock bland or plain coloured socks for the most part, hence the bright coloured, fun and bold Nic Harry socks provided (and continue to provide) a fresh and exciting alternative. To differentiate the brand from other similar sock brands, Nic Harry opted for bamboo instead of cotton for the fabric and local South African production as compared to mass production in China. Bamboo has advantages of being organic, eco-friendly and anti-bacterial whilst local production meant job creation in South Africa. Over and above this, Nic Harry have zeroed in on providing exceptional and personalised service, something that typical traditional large retailers and other service providers have spectacularly failed at. For example, the Nic Harry sales team do not wear shoes inside their stores. Why? To stoke the potential customers imagination and make them see, first hand what it looks like to wear the socks and presumably how comfortable they are.

When Nic Harry was first launched, it was only available online without a physical store. Three years down the line, they opened their first physical store in Cape Town. Interestingly, the total first month sales of the physical store rivalled the online sales of the first three years combined. That was a game changer for them and no doubt suggests the need for brands to look at online stores and physical stores as being complimentary instead of the former being the eventual replacement of the latter! Nic Harry have since gone on to open a few other physical stores in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Niche Retailing

As far as the future of e-Commerce goes, Nic put forward his view that Takealot has pretty much broken away from the rest of the pack in terms of being a leading online retailer in South Africa. Given the scale of funding that Takealot have received and their growth in the last few years, it would be very difficult to build a similar e-Commerce offering in South Africa from the ground up today. That is potentially a blessing and a curse for Takealot. The blessing lies in them fast becoming a household name synonymous with buying online in South Africa (and potentially the rest of Africa?). The curse on the other hand is that they generally cannot afford to have depth of service/experience and a variety of options for most products (e.g. socks) thus leaving a gap in the market. This is where the opportunity potentially lies for other players in the retail space, niche retailing — creating experiences and selling very specific niche products to targeted groups of consumers. Some of the advantages of niche retailing include the ability to better control the entire chain from manufacturing to product distribution, cutting out the middle man and the ability to learn about the customer at every touchpoint.

My experience

At the end of Nic’s talk, I understood some of the sock business mechanics as well as why one would want to wear these socks. I had also made up my mind that I would purchase a pair, not that I had made peace with the cost but so I could experience the brand as Nic had described it and go on to write this blog post. So, without too much delay, I made plans to head over to the Nic Harry store at the Waterfront to purchase a pair. Surely enough, when I got to the store, the salesman was wearing Nic Harry socks and no shoes, he engaged with me enthusiastically (seriously Anele was on point given it was 8pm on a Friday) and sold me the rules must be broken / be daring pitch when I struggled with picking a pair to buy. After paying, my new pair of socks was packed into a Nic Harry branded box (that had been sprayed with the unique Nic Harry scent) and carry bag. Talk about making you feel damn special! I walked away feeling good about having bought my most expensive pair of socks to date, the service had been impeccable and experience all round memorable. Do I still think they are a tad pricey? Yes! Will I buy another pair of Nic Harry socks in the future? I will fight the urge but given that my achillies’ heel is excellent service, I will not be surprised if my sock drawer looks like a rainbow by the end of the year.

This was originally published at juliankanjere.com.