Overkill" sneaker store in Berlin, Germany (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Sole searching: buyers, sellers and the quest for the holy grail sneakers

Self-described sneakerhead Dylan Moran on what drives collectors like him – and how stop-at-nothing resellers are distorting the market.

You may have seen them – huddled masses of young people, perched on camping chairs with sleeping bags up to their ears, snaking along High Street or Queen Street in Auckland, or Dixon Street or Victoria Street in Wellington. Possibly you’ve seen the bewildered media coverage: Why are these crazy people spending hours in the elements just to pay $400 for shoes?

They are sneakerheads. I am a sneakerhead.

The history of sneaker culture has become a well-worn tale: Chuck Taylor traversing the United States in the 1920s giving basketball clinics to children and hocking his signature shoe as a travelling salesman for Converse. Run DMC wearing laceless Adidas shell-toes. Michael Jordan signing with Nike and teenagers plastering their walls with ‘Jumpman’ posters, creating an icon out of the original Jordan 1 silhouette. Kanye West sensationally switching from Nike to Adidas, making Yeezy an internationally-recognised brand and Adidas’ ‘Boost’ technology a success.

But where is sneaker culture now? Who are the modern collectors? And what’s happening in New Zealand? It’s a story about pop culture, big business and fashion, a global movement that has influenced artists, designers and entrepreneurs in Aotearoa. And it’s a big deal.

While they might not admit it, or even realise it, New Zealand’s collectors have it very sweet compared to the rest of the world.

We have one store which regularly gets highly sought after limited release shoes (the sneakers that kids sleep on the streets for) – Loaded on Auckland’s High St. Area 51 in Wellington often gets them as well, and Footlocker (Auckland, Hamilton, Porirua, Wellington and Christchurch) and Good as Gold (Wellington) do so occasionally.

The author, not as miserable as he looks, during a sneaker camp out last year (supplied)

There are three common ways to get your hands on an exclusive pair of sneakers. The most visible, (and perplexing to those not in the know) is the camp or lineup method. Stores will randomly announce that customers can begin lining up outside their store. Sometimes this will be a few hours before, sometimes it will be days. Pairs are usually assigned as people arrive, so customers don’t have to wait days when they had no chance the whole time. Then there are stores that release the shoe on their website, either at a set time or randomly – less physically demanding than the camping method, but requiring lightning-quick reflexes to be with a chance. Finally, there’s the raffle – increasingly the choice of overseas retailers – in which customers put their name in a draw for the chance to purchase a pair in their size.

Sneaker raffles differ from store to store: You might enter in-store, on the store’s website, or via Instagram raffle, usually involving a million different instructions which leave you polluting your friends’ Instagram feeds and tagging in a million randos (sorry guys, we hate it too). In some countries, raffle tickets are limited to ensure a certain ratio, leading people to camp out overnight just for the chance to enter.

Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages to the store and consumer. Raffles require oversight to ensure people aren’t entering multiple times with different names. Camps overseas regularly break out into fights as people try to cut in line or get into arguments (not so much a problem in New Zealand where the community is small; people are more likely to make a Facebook post than fight each other). They’ve even sometimes they ended in death. Online releases can cause stores sites to crash as they are hammered with traffic (more on that later).

The world of the sneaker collector is full of paranoia and conspiracy theories. It is not uncommon to hear a store accused of ‘backdooring’ (when an employee rigs a raffle to ensure a friend wins), which can lose stores their contracts with shoe companies. Accusations also fly about stores not enforcing their own ‘one pair per customer’ rules, lying about stock numbers or using unfair release methods.

“For any business owner of course it’s tempting to backdoor as you could earn extra profit,” says one local retailer, who asked to speak anonymously. “But of course ethically we will never do that. To build a brand and successful store is difficult, and the repercussion of jeopardising your brand image isn’t worth it.”

But what many New Zealand collectors don’t realise is this paranoia exists a link further up the chain and stores themselves may get hit by backdooring. At each stop along their journey to New Zealand shop shelves, pairs tend to disappear – either through employees keeping them for themselves or the local distributor gifting them to stores to foster good relationships. By the time a 100-pair allocation arrives in New Zealand, there may only be 40 left for customers to buy.

Store owners play politics with the people pulling the strings behind the scenes in the hopes they’ll receive more pairs than their competitors – or even better, the highly sought-after exclusive contract or release. Rumours fly about mismanagement, financial difficulties and loose ethics in rival stores. These tactics often work. Collectors will raise an eyebrow when a store suddenly gets all the best shoes, or another suddenly stops getting them, but not know the game-playing that caused it.

There is always a gnashing of teeth when Australian stores get a certain shoe, but New Zealand misses out. These relationships can be the reason. Complicating this for local retailers is that while Adidas has a New Zealand presence, Nike is run out of Australia, and it can be difficult for retailers here to get the attention of Nike.

The Nike Air Yeezy 2 “Red October” sneaker, 2014. The long awaited Kanye West collaboration quickly began reselling for thousands of dollars (Photo: Getty Images)

Then there’s the availability of stock, and how it is allocated worldwide. Sometimes shoes will only be released in Europe, Asia or the United States. Sometimes a shoe will release in multiple colourways, with each being exclusive to a region. But often Europe and the Americas will account for 95% of the stock, leaving the rest of the world to fight over a tiny allocation. This is why a 100 pair allocation becoming 40 is so devastating for us at the end of the world. A 20 pair allocation (a “full size run”) might never even arrive in New Zealand.

Missing out on a limited release can be financially devastating to a store. There’s a cycle for retailers: first, stores need to sell a certain amount of ‘GRs’ (general releases) to be given access to limited releases. Limited releases bring collectors to the store and are virtually guaranteed to sell out, and while the profit margins on these may not be huge, they increase the store’s brand exposure, which attracts new customers who may buy the GRs, allowing them to meet their sales requirements. Acquiring a limited-release contract with a major brand can make a store, while losing one can break them. A brand not meeting their end of the deal with a store can be seen as a betrayal and in the past has led some stores to walk away from a brand entirely. 

Ask any two sneakerheads their motive for collecting shoes and you’ll get two different answers. I came from a low income household and went to school with holes in the toes of my Warehouse shoes, which by then were too small for me anyway. A kid in my class, Zac, always had the newest and best, which made him stand out even more at a Decile 1 school. He had a Sega. He had cool clothes. He had his birthday party at McDonald’s and invited the whole class. And he had Nikes. He had Jordans, he had Air Maxes. He was the epitome of early 90s cool. He could have been A.C. Slater’s kid brother. You prayed you didn’t get rostered for show and tell the same day as Zac, because he’d steal the spotlight with his newest shoes. From an early age, sneakers to me were an aspirational goal, a sign you were cool.

Sneaker culture is largely driven by a passion for collecting something tangible, something with a story, something which will return its monetary value for years.

All sneakerheads have one thing in common: the emotional attachment to their ‘personals’. Whether it’s the pair I got after staying up at the computer for over 30 frustrating hours chasing around the world through releases in different time zones, or the pair I wanted for months and finally got at a decent resale price – or even the pair I got at Footlocker on sale that had no collector value but was a throwback to the 90s – every shoe has an emotional attachment behind it. If you allow me, I can blabber on for hours about each one. We all can.

Prospective KAWS x Air Jordan IV buyers wait outside a Berlin store, March 2017. Several dozen die-hard sneakers fans took five days out of their lives to buy the limited-production shoes. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

The internet changed sneaker collecting, and the tectonic plates of online shopping and shoe selling have not stopped shifting since. Even just a few years ago, highly sought after shoes would sit on relatively unknown sites for days; Nike would release shoes on their website with no limits on how many pairs a customer could purchase.

But then people realised they could automate the checkout process with computer programs. Since then retailers have been in a war with those customers. Bots allow an individual to check out multiple pairs faster than a real human can enter their credit card details to buy a single pair. One popular bot which targets Adidas’s own website has released 10 copies of its technology for sale each week for around a year. That means at least 500 people have a copy of the bot and will be using it on the Adidas site each time they release a new pair of sneakers.

These days it’s not as simple as just waking up at 8am, going on the Adidas website, choosing your size and entering in all your details character by character. And it’s increasingly hard for the average person sitting at their laptop to get the shoes they want.

Even those who don’t use bots are seeking out auto-shortcuts just to be able to compete. Autocomplete (a built-in function on most browsers) is essential. Then there are things like page monitors, which refresh a specific link at regular intervals to see if anything has changed on the page (like a shoe being released) and provide an update. Not to mention auto-clicker devices, which allow you to spam-click the ‘add to cart’ button on websites. But none of these are as efficient as bots.

Both Adidas and Nike have installed bot-protection methods on their sites with varying success. The barriers shoe companies put up only work for so long – programmers in the sneaker community are constantly hunting for an advantage, by finding and exploiting loopholes on websites. Last year they targetted Adidas’s regional websites, which required customers to get a token to access a ‘waiting room’ page in order to be able to purchase shoes. However, when one region sold out, a user could simply go to the page for that region, get the token, and go to the waiting room for a non sold-out region, which would allow them through. This has since been fixed, but programmers soon found other ways through the system.

The shoes below carried a retail price of $230NZD. They resell for well over $2000NZD each. There is over $250,000NZD worth of shoes in that photo. There is a lot of money to be made in shoes.

Resellers are divisive figures in sneaker communities. Both Loaded and Area 51 have been known to ban people who have been proven to resell. Loaded recently ran a poll of customers seeking information about how they want them to treat people they identify as resellers.

I asked one New Zealand-based reseller about how he’s perceived in the wider sneaker community.

“A lot of people don’t like me because they’re salty when they can’t buy the shoes [in stores], but I think a lot of collectors do come to me because I charge a lot less than [other resellers]. If I know them on a personal level then I just give them a retail assist [ed note: selling at the retail price with no additional cost]. Some of the people who complain the loudest about resellers and needing to crack down and ban them are blowing up my DMs on release day when they strike out asking me to sell them pairs.”

I asked him whether retailers’ anti-reselling initiatives are having any effect.

“A lot of the retailers have some measures to stop me from winning raffles online, but I always have my way around it. Of course the bosses don’t like resellers but if I provide their employees with a few favours then I will end up getting some [favours] back. I think New Zealand retailers only ‘fight against resellers’ because it gives them a better brand image but behind the scenes it just really depends on how much you pay.”

“I know they won’t ban me but the day they do I’ll probably make their next Yeezy release sit. I can get 100-plus pairs from overseas for lower than the retail price here. I have a business so I can run the tax and custom fees back through my business. Imagine what would happen to the resale market here if I dump 150 pairs for retail or even $10 under retail?”

One big figure in the sneaker community who doesn’t think resellers are the scourge they’re depicted as is Josh Luber, who runs the American reselling platform StockX. To be fair, his bias is obvious – these people pay his bills.

“[Reselling] is a concern that a lot of ‘old’ sneakerheads have, but this has ALWAYS existed, just in different forms. And it exists in every single industry,” Luber said in a Reddit AMA.

“In a lot of ways, those who are here ‘just for profit’ are often the ones who help the industry the most because they are motivated by creating efficiencies, providing services and HELPING those who are the collectors. If their service or product doesn’t help people, then they won’t make any profit.”

The retail store employee I spoke to agreed. While it’s not the view of their employer, they said the small market in New Zealand encourages the view that resellers are parasites.

“If you go to Asia or America resellers aren’t as frowned upon as they are here. But that’s because of the disposable income people have and size of the market. In most of those countries your average sneakerhead is extremely lucky to buy things at retail, and there’s the mentality ‘oh I’ll just go and buy off StockX’.

“I’ve bought shoes from resellers before, and does it suck? Yes of course it does. But if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have shoes I really, really want.”

The Air Jordan x Off-White 1 “White”, one of 2018’s most sought after sneakers

Part of the reason for the hatred of resellers within the community is the braggadocio with which they operate. Resellers tend to love flaunting how many pairs they received (the picture earlier is an example of this) or tagging sneaker stores in photos showing the hundreds of pairs they’ve managed to buy by circumventing the ‘one per customer’ rule. Some will take a more aggressive approach to show stores who’s boss. In an incident which has taken on meme-like qualities within shoe communities, one store switched to an online raffle system for a release last year rather than their normal online release system. When the raffle launched, the site instantly crashed.

“Unfortunately some people or someone did not want [the raffle] to work and used a DDoS attack, hammering in 180 tb of traffic to try knock our servers out,” the store explained on Instagram.

The power these programmers possess is an open threat to stores: play the way we want or else.

But this incident also highlighted the biggest reason the sneaker community doesn’t like resellers. They say they provide an opportunity to customers who miss out on limited-release sneakers, but ignore that the reason a lot of people miss out is because of them. If a sneaker releases 100 pairs and bots buy 90 of them, that leaves 10 customers who actually receive them. And if bot-assisted reselllers – who tend to be a lot more tech-literate than the average punter – are unhappy, they might just take down a site so nobody can purchase at all. Even their ‘everyday’ bot activity can bring online shoe retailers to their knees, forcing them to spend money on anti-bot services or more secure retail platforms, adding another expense to an already low profit margin business.

“It’s the amount of work and investment it cost to get this product, as well as the work that goes on behind the scenes for these [sneaker] launches that no one understands,” says the anonymous store employee.

“We all still see it as a great problem to have. From a personal perspective, I have collected sneakers for years, and to give people an opportunity to access sneakers like this now is great.”

Next time you see a group of people camped out in front of a sneaker store, don’t roll your eyes. Realise they’re doing it to guarantee themselves a pair of shoes they love – and that while they might not be overjoyed to be braving the cold and a night on the footpath, they’d rather do it than battle bots online or take their minuscule chances in a raffle. And they’d much rather do it than pay resale prices, lining the pockets of the very people who reduce their chances to buy, further depleting the market.

Go up to them, ask them what they’re wearing and what got them into sneakers. Ask them what they like about this particular release.

Just don’t ask them “don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”

 


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