The Press Article, A Business Venture To Knock Your Socks Off

A problem solved at home became a business for Cosy-Toes-The-Chch-Press-Mainlander-Article

an entrepreneurial mum.

What do you do when you can't buy warm socks for your kids?

Most Mums would simply go for those nifty synthetic jobs. And why wouldn't they? They're cheap and clothes shops have them by the dozen.
Tracey Topp could have gone down this well trod path.
But that would have left her still unable to put fine wool socks on her boys' cold feet. If she was looking for merino socks, surely other women were in the same position.
And so a business idea was born.
The year was 2005 and Topp was busy raising Drew, then three, and nine month old Logan and doing the bookwork for husband Geoff Topp's agricultural contracting business.
"I couldn't find any wool socks for my boys when they were little and I couldn't work out where all the wool socks had gone from when I was small. I thought maybe I could put them back on the market, but I had just about given up when I finally found someone who would manufacture them. They must have been the last children's wool sock manufacturers in New Zealand."
The small North Canterbury township of Rotherham, population 300, now has one shop, one pub, one school and Cosy Toes.
Topp gave herself a three year deadline and if the business didn't work out, she could at least be content she had tried her best. At the very worst, she would have a mountain of gifts for people with small feet.
She sees now she was fortunate to start a business in a narrow window of opportunity.
Wool had fallen off the shopping radar, a victim of new synthetic products, marketing apathy and a misconception it was itchy. Adult merino socks were available but, for some reason, the nippers lost out.
In a dramatic turnaround, outerwear made of high country merino wool has become the garment of choice, especially for the casual outdoor market, and a brand in its own right.
Living in Rotherham, Topp could not rely on foot traffic for business so she went online.
Producing a website has broken down the isolation factor of living in the country and brought her closer to an international market. Equally, its easier for busy mums to hop on the internet than to traipse around shops with children in tow.
"The internet brings the world together and not everyone lives next to shops. There is a huge network of mums on the internet with blogging and Facebook and it brings them together. There are online coffee groups and business has also come from word of mouth, with kids wearing the clothes and people asking where they can get them from."
The venture further fitted the bill because it meant she could work around the boys' needs and life in a rural township.
Working in an office becomes easier when you look out on to rural vista extending to the Waiau River and on to the Leslie Hills.
Finding work is often difficult for rural women and usually, once the sole teaching position goes, the options start falling away.
That is why many start their own business. Without much thought, Topp can easily reel off friends who have begun pheasant-shooting, plant nursery and hazlenut enterprises.
Operating a business has its challenges and socks are no different. Apart from the difficulty of getting them made in New Zealand, a child's sock requires as much work as the adult version, yet buyers expect a lower price.
Topp has to order a year's stock in advance to make it worthwhile for a manufacturing run. This required some guess work initially, but she has a better feel for the market now.
Then there is the heavyweight competition from synthetic outlets and competitors in the merino lines that have since popped up.
For all that, Topp has found a nice niche.
"I feel the merino has become a trendy word. I don't even know if some people realise it's wool, but they like the warmth and all the benefits of it. ability to breathe and flame-retardant qualities."
Trading has emerged from the recession relatively unscathed. Last month, she got her first order to Alaska.
Southland's crisp climate also creates demand from backbone farmers in the far south, and the socks breach the rural and urban divide as Auckland fashionistas want the best for their broods.
Oddly enough, Australia is a regular destination for her socks, and Britain and the United States are other good markets.
Infant and baby socks are the biggest-selling items but Robinson also stocks merino undergarments and clothing such as t-shirts, hoodies and jumpers. The range has extended to adults' socks, children's lamb toys and, this year merino cot blankets.
Topp grew up on her family's sheep farm in Summerhill in Cust.
In her formative years, she was expected to help on the farm and was brought up working in the shearing shed and assisting in the August school holidays with lambing and later tailing.
Her mother was a knitter and she grew up wearing the woollen handwork, a portent for things to come.
Topp has always been a country girl and returned to her rural roots without a second thought after and overseas stint.
Rotherham is a great place to live and raise children, she says and close enough to the main centres for some retail relief. The farming connection continues with the family often visiting Geoff's parent's farm in the district.
Having a husband well versed in business has been handy and she calls on him for advice, but it's her show and she deals with all the enquiries, orders and dispatches and major business decisions.
She came to an ethical crossroad last year when her manufacturer informed her it was uneconomical to make the socks and they were going to sell the business.
She took pride in the socks and merino wear being made in New Zealand, yet knew it was going to be difficult to find another company.
"After that happened, I thought what am I going to do, and I started thinking about having them made in China and even found a manufacturer. But luckily, I rang a few manufacturers in New Zealand and one threw me a lifeline and I kept my socks New Zealand- made socks. The quantities are easier to work with, but it's pretty tempting to go to China, because it was half the price. I made the decision to go with New Zealand and be a proud New Zealand retailer."
On top of a busy schedule, she has also found time to send socks to a new Ugandan orphanage. Close to 1000 socks and other woollen items have been collected this year from customers, friends and knitting groups.
Topp's now in her fifth winter season of Cosy Toes and has plans to expand further. A former garage adjoining the neat brick home has been sectioned off for a display area, with obligatory woollen carpet underfoot, and the merino range is expected to grow.
The children still come first and she still does the books for the contracting business, which has adapted to service the growing dairying in the district and is the family's main income earner.
"My point of difference is my socks, which I concentrate on because they are so blimming hard to get made, and I try to keep ahead of my competitors. There is a lot of competition now and people are chasing my tail."