Help bust the myth. Merino wool socks and apparel can be top performers in the summer, too. But not all wool is alike. Read this Retail College chapter to find out how the best wool products tackle the heat for your customer.
A printed version of this digital flipbook (click to download, save and/or print the pdf) was mailed to more than 1,000 specialty retail shops in June and it is one in a series of special Retail College How To Sell chapters the SNEWS team produces.
Merino wool apparel and accessories have been big sellers for outdoor retailers of late, but there’s a common misconception that the fiber is appropriate only for winter use. It’s time to bust that myth.
Thanks to its natural properties, merino wool can be a top-performing, year-round fabric for active customers. Its temperature-regulating abilities battle heat much in the same way they battle cold, and there is little garment stink, no matter how sweaty the workout.
But not all merino is equal. Find out what makes for the best merino wool products — from socks to shirts — in the summer, and educate your customers on why merino can outperform synthetics in the heat.
While your customers may love merino in the winter, they may question buying it in the summer.
“Won’t it make me hot?” they’ll ask.
That’s the perfect segue to talk about merino’s temperature-regulating properties. Its natural function is to keep a person’s body temperature consistent. Think of it like Goldilocks — not too hot, not too cold … just right. A more scientific analogy is the insulation in a house. In the winter, the insulation’s job is to keep the warm air in and the cold air out. In the summer, it switches to keep the cool air in and warm air out.
That’s how merino wool performs when it’s against one’s skin. The natural fibers are twisted and knitted to create millions of air pockets to keep things cooler or warmer inside. The goal of is to keep your body at its natural interior temperature of 98.6 degrees.
That temperature-regulation is a key factor in your customer’s comfort outdoors. Even amidst the summer heat, customers wearing synthetics or cotton can complain of getting the chills after a long, sweaty run or a creek crossing where their shoes get submerged. Merino wool outperforms other fabrics by recognizing the surrounding temperature and adjusting accordingly.
Another common misconception with merino wool is that it absorbs too much moisture from an overheating body and therefore doesn’t wick as well as synthetics, which absorb no moisture.
While it’s true that merino is absorbing moisture, the important fact to impart to the customer is that when the natural fiber is against the skin, it’s absorbing that moisture in vapor form away from body, then quickly expelling it through evaporation, before it becomes a liquid.
Many synthetic wicking materials, conversely, don’t begin to work until the body heat has manifested into liquid sweat. Then the system is constantly trying to catch up. That’s one of the reasons why with synthetic socks, customers complain of clammy feet.
Need proof that merino wool is managing moisture effectively? Look no further than its ability to keep stink at bay.
The main culprits of body odor are bacteria, which find their breeding ground in liquid moisture. Thanks to merino’s ability to keep that moisture in vapor form and evaporating, there’s little opportunity for the stinky bacteria to form. If body odor does develop, wool garments can be aired out to dissipate the smell. Synthetics, on the other hand, stink up fast and hold odors until the next wash.
Many merino wool brands have debuted merino/synthetic mixes in their lines, to promote the benefits of multiple fabrics, and in some cases reduce costs. While there are some truths here, it’s important to look closely at what these mixes entail.
In socks, nylon and elastane commonly are used to provide structure and stretch. This is a good thing to give the merino wool something to latch onto and keep the sock durable as possible. Note to the customer that higher-crew socks likely will have a higher synthetic-material content compared to the merino wool, because there is more structure to build. The important point to keep in mind is the wool in the sock, minus the synthetic structure, should be 100 percent wool against the skin.
When it comes to merino/synthetic blends — where wool and polyester are spun together in one yarn, frequently in apparel — there’s more debate about whether the mix helps or hinders the garment. Some brands tout increased durability, softness and wicking properties with added polyester. Others say the synthetics impede wool’s natural properties, and in many cases are being used by brands to reduce costs.
We’ll leave chiming in on the debate up to your specialty shop, but a good tip is to gauge where your customer stands. If they come into the store specifically looking for the benefits of merino wool, steer them toward the non-blended wool products so they can experience the full benefits. If they’re a bit more skeptical, or cost-conscious, starting them out with a wool blend won’t hurt.
Combating wool’s itch
Most merino wool proponents advise that the natural fiber works best when placed next to skin, and since we’re talking summer wool here, it’s likely your customer will be wearing only one layer. In this case, a top concern will be wool’s itch.
That’s where micron levels come into play. No matter the type of wool — merino or not — the micron level of the wool fibers determines comfort.
In general, the lower the micron level, the finer the material is, and the less it itches. A micron level of 18.5 or less is preferred for apparel with the wool next to skin, and a micron level of 23 and under is preferred in socks.
But the figures don’t tell the whole story. The reason one 18-micron merino product will itch and another will not, is that the micron level actually expresses an average among all wool fibers in the garment. Within that average, no matter how many small-micron merino fibers there are, it only takes as few high-micron fibers to create the itch. Therefore, it’s important that the total wool content doesn’t deviate too much from the average on the high end of the spectrum.
This won’t be labeled on packaging, so it’s left to the manufacturer’s integrity to properly test and vet the wool. In the store, the test is simple. Have the customer try the garment on next to his or her skin to be sure there is no itch. And since not all wools are equal, have them try several different brands.
As mentioned above, there are pros and cons to brands blending polyester with wool to reduce itch. In these cases, keep an eye on wool content. Anything less than 50 percent wool in a blend begins to raise questions about whether one truly can advertise the product as wool.
Summer vs. winter wool
If a customer is sold on wool year-round, they might default to lighter weights of wool in the summer. That makes sense in most cases, especially with apparel. And, particularly with close-fitting performance running shoes, a light and thin sock is best.
In other cases, consider the comfort factor. With roomier hiking shoes or boots, and for a long hike, a well-cushioned merino wool sock may still be the best choice for the customer in the summer. Remember, because of wool’s temperature-regulating properties, that extra insulation won’t necessarily lead to a hotter foot in warm weather.
Sock it to me
Whatever the season, there are must-have features in merino wool socks to point out to the customer, including deep heel pockets, smooth toe closures, and ventilation panels.
Some season- and sport-specific socks do bring differences depending on the customer’s use. Cycling socks, for example, contain minimal cushion but may feature some cushioning in the instep near where the buckle presses in. Running socks, especially for tighter-fitting shoes, tend to feature little-to-no cushion, but trail runners might prefer some cushion in the underfoot, and some like a tab of cushion on the upper heel of a no-show sock.
The long and short of it
When it comes to sock length, the assumption might be knee-highs in the winter, no-shows in the summer, but leave it to the fashion world, and some performance tactics, to bust the myth. Knee-high socks are gaining popularity for both summer runners and cyclists. Sometimes it’s a fashion statement — trends can differ by region — others want a bit of compression for performance, and still others are looking to avoid mud or poison ivy on the trail. Those knee-high compression merino wool socks are also popular year-round, helping consumers recover after long runs in the summer.
Author: David Clucas
Art Director: Jackie McCaffrey
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