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The Year of Revival in Sneaker Culture

February 27, 2024
Scott Carter
Sneakers / Streetwear Category Lead

Is the sneaker market running itself into the ground? Too many drops, too much inventory. 

That’s the question I’m being asked left and right as retailers react to a multi-year trend of slowing sales. Sneaker revenue in 2023 sank 3 percent from pre-pandemic stats, and sales are projected to remain stagnant in 2024. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Those who have been around it long enough know this isn't the first slump in sneaker culture or the sneaker business, and I know there’s a way out of it. The opportunity is for a much-needed return to the culture's roots of a shared experience - in person. Brands that lean into community and reward fans for putting in the effort to hunt down that sneaker they love can and will win back the hearts of sneakerheads.

If done right, 2024 can be the year that we reignite passion, rebuild community, and remind fans why this subculture was fun in the first place. But to do that, Brands need to strike the balance between relationships and revenue and get back to building a real connection with their fans - something that can't be done exclusively through the screen. 

Let’s take this offline (sometimes)

Being a true sneakerhead is about way more than just the shoes - it’s always been the thrill of the hunt. When drops were regional, you had to live in the right place or know the right crew to get your hands on certain styles. Now, in our era of tech-driven globalization when everything is done behind a keyboard, the excitement of exclusivity can be harder to feel. It’s time to put some creativity back into launches and shake things up. 

Don’t get me wrong, online drops are still necessary. They help us expand our reach to fans in every corner of the globe. But, they shouldn’t be the only way brands launch every new product. Finding innovative ways to get back to event- and location-based approaches that bring fans together, offer opportunities to surprise and delight people, and yes, require a little effort are the way of the past and the future. 

Using online tech to fuel safe, in-person connection is something brands should be exploring. The two are not mutually exclusive.

After all, sneaker culture has always been about realness. Making real connections in the line-up, with the store staff - and the community. Sneakerheads will help keep it real and will go the extra mile to get what they want. Brands shouldn’t be afraid of asking them to. 

Fans embrace the right challenges

Finally getting a W can lose its luster when all it takes is clicking a few buttons — especially if that clicking leads to L after L. And that shrinking excitement is a big part of what’s killing the sneaker industry. 

But the harder sneakers are to get, the harder fans chase, the more rewarding it is to get a pair, and the more tight-knit the community becomes.

If retailers are hesitant to ask fans to do more to get the W, they should keep in mind that FCFS online drops are challenging consumers to do more anyway - just not in a fun way, nor a way that builds a connection. In fact, it does the opposite. Refreshing a page over and over, attempting the sockjig method (shoutout sockjig), watching error messages pop up on a screen, clicking uselessly as inventory sells out instantly (and appears just as fast on resell sites at triple the price) — that’s hard, and it sucks. It drives more hate than love, that’s for sure. 

On the other hand, you get a room full of real ones at a launch party, DJ and bar lighting it up, and you drop a pre-release on them - they are fans for life. Maybe they got a ticket to the party for engaging with your social impact program, or they have entered all the Travis drops this year and taken an L each time - you saw them and included them. Now they get a W in person and a little early? This is not about “do this to get access”. This is about rewarding those who are putting in the effort, going to the events, being an engaged member of the community - and making that effort feel worthwhile, and seen. 

Less server errors, more scavenger hunt. Those are the kinds of challenges that you can actually win because they’re rigged for real humans who are in it for the love of the shoes — not bots or resellers. 

Recreating community to rebuild culture

As I said earlier, sneaker culture has never just been about the shoes. Like any fandom, at its heart is community and culture.

In the pre-Internet era, sneaker boutiques served as community hubs - somewhere for sneakerheads to meet, swap stories about their grails, what their latest pickup was, and where they heard something about the next drop. Store owners curated the shoe wall, influencing the tastes and preferences of the local sneaker community, and drop days were an event rather than a transaction. It’s where the community was built - in the lineup for 5 hrs, or maybe even a few days - in snow, rain, heat - whatever it took. (Imagine the bond you would make with someone in a line-up for three days!) 

These days, we’ve traded sneaker shops for subreddits and release events for social media reels. And while we can all appreciate the extra depth that technology has brought to the community of fandom and the ability to bring people together across the world, it doesn’t have to come at the cost of keeping the community behind computer screens.

Humanity is burnt out on online-only relationships and transactions. Let’s continue to take advantage of our modern conveniences while bringing a bit of that old-school culture, connection, and community back.

Globally accessible, locally focused

At EQL, It’s been exciting to see, and work with, brands that are leading the way in this space. I love what Joe Freshgoods did with his New Balance 990v4 “Keisha Blue” colorway. While the other two styles in the drop (“Intro” and “Outro”) were released globally online, Keisha Blue — arguably the standout of the release — was available only in Chicago, Joe’s hometown. 

Joe got his start in that pre-internet era when geography still meant something and sneakerheads’ experiences were uniquely tied to where they lived - or made the chase to. With this release, Joe’s Chicago fans got to have a little taste of what it feels like to be lucky, to get your hands on something exclusive. Fans entered online, winners were picked, and then had to come into the store to pick up their NB’s, interacting with the JFG team and each other, sharing the passion. We are talking mid-December, Chicago, cold AF, and lineups to pick up the shoes. He used tech to make it happen and made sure the community was the focus. A perfect execution. 

We should all take note of Joe’s strategy because it proves that you can make some of your fans feel extra special without alienating the rest. Anyone could get in on the launch online. And anyone who really wanted those Keisha Blues could travel to Chicago — embrace the adventure and end up with a great story as well as an incredible pair of shoes (and probably pay less on the plane ticket than what the Keishas are currently going for on eBay). 

We don’t have to give up on online drops entirely to bring back a little of that magic from days gone by.

Give meaning to the moment

Another way brands can build hype is by getting in on moments that already have fans stoked. 

In February 2024, Jordan Brand and Foot Locker launched a surprise early raffle of the Jordan IV “Bred” Reimagined at Summer Jam, a massive basketball festival in Melbourne. The only way for fans to get into the draw was via the QR code they had displayed onsite. A true “You had to be there” moment. 

Using EQL’s tech, we were able to prioritize the entries that were from people at the event. Did it leak out of the event? Sure, this is sneaker culture, isn’t it? And Foot Locker is the OG of sneaker stores. But that’s okay - we see it. And we also see who tried to jig their location. 

In the end, the true fans who engaged in the moment and contributed to the community by showing up got early access to one of the most sought-after drops of 2024. Shout out to the team at Jordan Brand and Foot Locker for making this happen for the real ones! 

Embrace the best of both worlds

Joe Freshgoods, along with Jordan Brand and Foot Locker, got people talking with their drops in a way that we haven’t seen in a long while. People got to feel like they were a part of something: a real-world connection that’s become increasingly rare since the advent of the internet, and exponentially so since the pandemic.

There’s nothing stopping brands from leaning into community-building again — and doing so without turning their backs on fans who need or prefer online drops. We should be using technology to enable these connections, not replace them. Using a flexible launch solution like EQL, retailers can offer a seamless online experience alongside a locals-first approach with geofencing technology that prioritizes entrants based on location. 

The only thing holding brands back now is a lack of imagination. And I think we’ll see that when we start asking sneakerheads to engage with their fandom in a real, live way again, we’ll see that passion come rushing back.
Scott Carter
Sneakers / Streetwear Category Lead

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