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Sneakernomics: Are Sneakerheads Important?

Jan 26, 2017
Matt Powell, Vice President, Industry Analyst ;
Sports

About every month or so, someone in the mainstream media will “discover” that sneakerheads exist. They often seek me out to ask what drives this phenomenon and what their value is to the market.

A formal definition of a sneakerhead is a person who collects, trades, and/or admires sneakers as a form of hobby. Sneakerheads, like most collectors, are passionate and dedicated to their subject. Many are very knowledgeable about the origins and history of sneakers. Many spend a great deal of time and money studying the category and its past, while building their collections.

I have a deep respect for the passion, commitment, and knowledge that sneakerheads possess.

Sneakerheads have been around since brands began to associate athletes with particular shoe styles. In the 1970’s, the best New York City street ballers had the coolest and rarest shoes, which were supplied by the brands. When Nike reintroduced the Air Force 1 at the behest of East Coast urban retailers, the fervor ratcheted up a notch. Serious collecting started with the first Jordan shoe, banned by the NBA. Other brands entered the act by signing players and creating special shoes just for them. Later, when Nike began re-issuing “retro” Jordan’s, new and old collectors sought to start or fill in collections. Then sneaker collecting was off to the races.

With the advent of the internet, we reached a whole new dimension in the world of sneakerheads. Isolated collectors could now connect with each other. Rumors about releases and special products bounced all over the web. Opinions about favorite shoes could be shouted (and shouted down) across time zones and continents. All of this helped heat up the sneakerhead world even further.

And then came ways to buy and sell your favorite sneakers through peer-to-peer websites like eBay. This changed the game dramatically. Soon, rare styles were selling for multiple-times their original retail value. Prices escalated, which brought on opportunists.

Finally, brands began to do collaborations with artists, musicians, and celebrities, creating specially designed, extremely limited edition styles. The brands intended for such shoes to give them further hype and credibility within the sneakerhead community. Because collaborations were very limited in quantity, they became highly desirable. Collaborations created yet another market for collectors.

Very quickly the sneakerhead world went from collecting for fun to profiteering. As resale prices escalated on limited edition shoes, a new type of “sneakerhead” came into being: the speculator. Looking merely to make a quick buck (or hundreds of quick bucks), many more buyers got into the game with the sole intent of flipping limited edition shoes, sometimes on the same day they bought them.

Sneakerheads have always sold and traded their shoes, but never to this degree and intensity. The introduction of a large number of resellers has raised the resale prices of shoes and kept traditional collectors from acquiring the shoes they coveted.

Sneakerhead sales information has always been a little tough to pin down, but one angle is to look at the sales of the kinds of shoes that sneakerheads are interested in and make an estimate. These shoes are generally Brand Jordan retro or marquee basketball shoes (endorsed by big-name players), or shoes tied to collaborations (though these are very limited in terms of the number of pairs available and don’t amount to much in sales). Of course, we cannot assume that every one of these shoes went to a sneakerhead; however, even if we take all of these shoes into account, the portion is still less than 3 percent of the total U.S. athletic footwear business, which is hardly a substantial number.  

Since sneakerheads have a rather minor impact on overall retail sales, how else can we assess their impact on the business?

The sneakerhead “press” has little influence outside the sneakerhead community. The sneakerhead media is comprised of everything from very large and sophisticated publishing organizations, to guys doing YouTube videos in their mom’s basement. All live in fear of offending the brands that they depend on to keep them fed with pictures and information about upcoming releases. In the sneakerhead press, there is very little original content and frequent cut-and-pasting of content from other sources. Because the sneakerhead media is unwilling or unable to speak the truth to power, their influence is very limited, except inside the echo chamber that is sneaker culture.

Individually and for the most part, sneakerheads lack a voice outside the echo chamber. Nevertheless, astute brands and retailers are listening to their collective voice. If the overall sentiment is very good or very bad about a particular product, color, or material, brands and retailers should adjust their plans accordingly. As I have often said, the most important thing to remember in using social media is not to talk, but to listen.

Sneakerheads are a deeply committed community of collectors and aficionados. They do not represent a major portion of sneaker sales, and while they do create a lot of hype and buzz that can be good for brand equity, this brand equity is difficult to measure. Within the echo chamber, the voices of sneakerheads are loud, but those voices do not carry.

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