Step Aside, Nike. Sneakerheads Give Life to a New Market


The 80s gave us a number of fascinating trends. Big hair, parachute pants, leg warmers, and the always fun sprinkler dance. But none of those have had the same enduring impact as sneakers. In 1985, Nike partnered with Michael Jordan to release the first pair of Air Jordans. The shoe line has since enjoyed great success with over 100 iterations and helped create the ‘sneakerhead’ subculture.

To some, sneakers are more than footwear. The desperation to get the latest and rarest has transformed the resell market into a $1 billion juggernaut. Bill Cunningham, fashion photographer for The New York Times, said he “can’t help but think that the young men’s sneakers are what the elaborate handbags were to women in this century, when the all-important handbag was the statement.”

Hype! Hype! Hype!

Nowadays, the most popular sneakers on the resale market often depend on what certain celebrities wear in public. This creates hype that converts into demand. The strategy employed by both Nike and ADIDAS is not meeting this demand, making their most lauded sneakers seem like a rare commodity. It helps resellers make money (which manufacturers don’t see a cent from), but it also helps create a mystique for Nike and ADIDAS shoes. In this sense, the relationship between resellers and manufacturers is symbiotic.

It still takes some hustle on the part of resellers. People stand in lines for hours or scour small towns searching for elusive pairs. Meanwhile, others invest thousands of dollars on bots and proxies that can quicken the online check out process at the exact moment of sale. (These bots are also the reason why you can’t get the best seats at concerts.)

Manufacturers support these actions by not making enough shoes, thus forcing disappointed shoppers to the proverbial back alleys of the resellers’ market. Again, this is a thriving industry making upwards of $1 billion. It may not be the $17.2 billion estimated sales that the athletic footwear industry generated in 2015, but it’s still impressive.

It’s more than enough to sustain Essential, a reseller outlet store in the heart of downtown Toronto. Co-owner Sean Matthew Hanes told The Globe and Mail, “It wasn't livable at first. It was more of a hobby than anything. Maybe $15,000 or $20,000 a year at best.” But this past July saw Essential take in a revenue of $100,000; a huge figure when considering their clientele mostly consists of passionate collectors.

You Gotta Work for That Shoe

The aftermarket value of rare shoes can be absurdly high at times, ranging from 10 to 20 times the original price. The most a buyer ever spent was for a pair of 2015 Eminem Carhartt Jordan 4s, which went for a reported $21,237.

These shoes aren’t cheap, even at the retailer level. The L.A. Lakers’ Lonzo Ball visited the Ellen DeGeneres show along with his father, LaVar. On the topic of Lonzo’s endorsed shoes, the ZO2s, LaVar said “You’re not a big baller” if you can’t afford the $500 sneakers. “You gotta work for that shoe,” he explained. “Or not eat that day,” Ellen responded.

What Attracts Sneakerheads?

As resale rises, retail is experiencing a bit of a downswing. Under Armour stock has dropped since 2015 by 60%, and Nike’s 2016 wholesale of basketball sneakers was down 1% even with the endorsements that are crucial for these brands. Along with Jordan, Nike has a roster of celebrity athletes including Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and tennis great Serena Williams. Under Armour sponsors sports figures Stephen Curry and Tom Brady. Perhaps sneakerheads are less about the athletes attached to the shoes, and more about the rarity and value of the shoes themselves?

The back and forth between Ellen and LaVar captures the identity of the sneakerhead culture. The shoes are a mark of status. The higher the rarity of your “kicks,” the closer to “grail” status they will seem.

Alex Correa | The Edge Blog


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