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How These “Self-Proclaimed Knitters” Get Thousands to Line the Block for Socks

Only more than a decade deep into the 21st century could a sock brand inspire enough passion to get people lined up around the block for a chance to enter its store.

Well, truth be told, Rihanna might have had a little something to do with the throngs that flocked to the SoHo flagship store for Stance, the sock brand that’s turned a mundane afterthought of a basic into covetable, collectible, wearable art.

Last year the Barbadian music-maker-cum-mogul and Stance ambassador hosted a fundraiser for her charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation, at the 1,400-square-foot Broadway shop, attracting masses eager to catch a glimpse of the Caribbean looker who graciously rang up purchases of custom socks designed to honor the non-profit that benefits impoverished communities worldwide. “It was insane,” was how store manager Khang Tran, speaking during Incisiv’s UnConference NRF store tour, described the Rihanna mania.

As its brand grows in popularity, Stance is looking to shed its roots as a wholesaler carried by retailers like PacSun, and focus on adding five to 10 stores over the next few years to reach a total of 25 outposts from a fleet of 13 shops today, Tran noted.

That physical presence will balance out e-commerce, which today drives more than half of the company’s revenue. Since its origins as a sock brand, the “self-proclaimed knitters” have branched out into other close-to-skin categories including men’s and women’s underwear and, most recently, T-shirts—including a $100 tee, Tran said, produced in Japan on a 150-year-old loom that’s one of just a couple hundred left in the world.

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“We’re making advancements in knit technology that haven’t been seen outside something like a Nike Flyknit,” Tran said, adding that Stance also employs customized circular knitting machines from family-owned Italian firm Lonati to produce what he describes as what Stance is all about: “premium basics.” Most production takes place at Future Stitch in China, a state-of-the-art Stance-owned factory run by Stance alumni and innerwear giant Delta Galil.

Let’s get funky

Like many young brands, Stance is led by a desire to “celebrate human originality” and creativity, dropping color-splashed, dye-sub socks that can easily assume the role of conversation starter. As Tran pointed out, “Everyone wears sock and underwear—why not get funky if you want to?”

Stance carries that “let’s get funky” approach to seemingly every aspect of its business. Last year the company bowed a self-checkout experience not tied to a mobile app in an effort to breathe some life into what can be a “stagnant” and “cookie-cutter” retail experience, Tran said.

“We’re trying to disrupt that,” he said. “If people want to come in and don’t have to say a word to us—and that’s their premium experience—then that’s what we’re going to try to provide.”

Stance employed headless commerce firm Moltin to build a progressive web app, heralded as the next big wave in mobile design experiences, that anyone with a smartphone can access via browser. Asked why Stance decided against creating a native app, Tran questioned, “Are we even important enough to be downloaded?”—speaking to the wave of consumer app fatigue that’s seen new installs grind to a halt.

Each store has its own dedicated URL that launches the checkout experience, so shoppers in the New York City flagship would navigate to soho.stance.com, turn on access to their phone’s camera and start scanning away. It currently supports both Apple Pay and Google Pay, though additional payment options could be coming, Tran said.

It might seem counterintuitive to invest in technology without overly promoting it, but Tran said Stance intentionally hasn’t made a big deal about beating customers over the head with this new self-checkout option. Beyond a couple of unobtrusive signs inside the SoHo store entrance, there’s little by the way of announcement inside the shop of the web app’s existence. Tran believes it’ll take a while for consumer behavior to evolve toward this kind of on-your-own approach, and he openly admitted that Stance might need to improve on educating shoppers about how the process works.

“There were times during Black Friday when there was a 10-person line and we offered [self-checkout] and not one person came out of line,” Tran said.

Perhaps Stance is simply ahead of the self-checkout curve. Tran draws a comparison with the advent of supermarket self-checkout stations. When they first arrived, stores had maybe a lane or two dedicated to the new employee-less technology; now they’ve taken a greater share of cash-wrap space as consumers have gotten comfortable with speed and convenience of scanning items on their own.

Though Tran said mobile checkout accounts for maybe 1 percent of total sales, Stance is confident that it represents “the future of retail.” Shoppers who choose the mobile option put their merchandise in a differently colored bag, a signal to associates that these customers don’t need to visit the register. Workers are trained to ask to view the receipt when shoppers carry one of those off-color bags, Tran said.

Stance hasn’t gathered data yet on how self-checkout influences basket size, but Tran shared anecdotally that he’s seen people with smaller purchases trying the mobile option—likely because scanning a pile of merchandise can be unwieldy for some customers. That lack of data could change soon as Stance recently onboarded two new data scientists to maximize its treasure trove of information on where and what people are buying.

A waste of space?

The lower level of the SoHo store serves as a VIP activation space, playing host to the likes of high-profile brand ambassadors from NBA stars James Harden and Dwyane Wade to tinseltown funnyman Jason Sudeikis (who owns a “huge collection” of Stance socks, Tran noted). Wu-Tang Clan threw a mini concert there last year, as did New York City rapper Cam’ron.

But when it’s not entertaining celebrities and bearing witness to memorable nights, downstairs doubles as a tastefully designed employee lounge stocked with an Xbox, Netflix and plenty of other creature comforts. It may seem like “wasted space,” especially at Lower Manhattan real estate prices, but Tran describes the lounge as “invaluable to our brand.”

“‘Retail associate’ is not a job that people want but we know that if we can operate in a manner that brings in higher talent and have spaces like this,” Tran explained, then “employee happiness” will follow.

Without differentiating the associate experience, “we’re just going to end up like another retailer with really bad employees that don’t care about the brand,” he continued. “We want the same disruptive experience for associates because to me, that’s what really matters.”