I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was a naïve high school freshman with no job, but oozing with hoop dreams and sartorial aspirations to stay “fresh.” The summer of 1997 was approaching, and I made two personal promises to myself: the first was to excel during that summer’s basketball camp (I won’t say which camp), somehow befriend a college recruiter, and propel myself into the national spotlight.
That obviously didn’t pan out.
The second promise was to purchase the glorious Air Jordan XII (playoff editions), after MJ unveiled them in to the national spotlight in the 1997 All-Star Game:
I obsessed over each intricate product detail, studying its craftsmanship and developing an appreciation with its mystique:
- “Quality Inspired By the Greatest Player Ever”
- “Two 3” effortlessly stitched into the tongue
- “Jumpman” emblazoned on the shoe’s lower
But the most important part of the equation was scrounging to pick up every piece of media (magazine, flyer, and circular) referring to the impending release at Foot Locker. You have to understand, there was a definite methodology to purchasing. Foot Locker was the one place that I knew of that was GUARANTEED to have them. In stock. At retail price. Foot Locker was simply more credible (we used to say “more official”) than the local sporting goods store, whose limited supply and in-store processes (which included marking them up to $175-$200) frustrated me time and time again.
Last week, however, the announcement that the once omnipotent retailer will close 117 stores in the United States revealed a significant dent in its armor. Although recent times have been dismal for retailers, Foot Locker’s difficulties indicative of a larger, ongoing transformation of the athletic footwear (read: “sneakerhead”) market. This consumer-led transformation has been building throughout the last half-decade, and its repercussions span lifestyle, consumer preferences, and, obviously (and most importantly), purchase behavior.
The existence of sneakerheads and superloyal brand fans is long established, but the tastes of the sneakerhead community are not static. Since the advent of the web, consumers and aficionados have had the means to delve deeper into shoe culture than previously possible – to scrutinize every handcrafted detail and explore every story. The net effect has shifted sneaker culture to a point where superfan’s desire and demands lean towards shoes with a claim to authenticity. More often than not, this still refers to those models that offered by a credible and recognizable brand (usually Nike), but it places a new emphasis on one particular point of difference: the existence of a story behind the shoe – the emotional, authentic connection that transforms the product from a commodity to a keepsake.
Once I reached that point, my perspective and consumption habits shifted, I began to gravitate towards models that had a sense of meaning behind them. These models, unfortunately, were NOT available at Foot Locker – part of what made them inherently “cool.” But if I couldn’t find them at Foot Locker, where could I find them?
I began scouring the web daily to build up an arsenal of resources that’d whet my insatiable appetite for exclusivity, coming across message boards (which I never participated in, but usually lurked opportunistically) and web magazines like freshnessmag.com and crookedtongues.com, which were basically glorified newsletters at the time. The interesting thing was that the communities of these sites had one thing in common- they appointed eBay as the definitive marketplace to purchase from, not Foot Locker. Foot Locker had become a brick-and-mortar location that was a manifestation of “The Man”- where the clueless general population shopped and huge corporate initiatives were satisfied.
The pre-Web 2.0 community grew to become navigators of not only what was relevant, but the important places to buy them (see: the rise of shoe boutiques). Foot Locker eventually played second fiddle in these communities before disappearing altogether as the Brand continued to drift further and further away from their consumer’s overall lifestyle experience.
Will Big Retail Catch Up?
An article was posted to AdWeek a few months ago with the title:
“Sneakerheads Rule: Right now, a handful of bloggers are deciding what sneakers kids will line up around the block to buy.”
Late pass aside, this is a pretty big statement coming from within the industry. To be fair, “Big Retail” isn’t dead (that isn’t the intent of this piece), and it has made strides by using social media and more niche targeting (Foot Locker’s “House of Hoops” location on 125th Street in Harlem is very popular) to remain relevant with the online community. Dr. Jay’s, another store that was popular during my youth, has transformed itself into a hub of original content. Foot Locker has accumulated a healthy amount of fans/followers via their presence on the large social channels, and uses the platforms to showcase the “coolest”, most “lifestyle-appealing” models they offer.
These are definitely moves in the right direction, but anchoring the brand amongst today’s consumers hoping to remain top-of-mind and culturally relevant is a marathon. The market is getting younger (see the below video), and as a majority, subscribe to a digital discovery process that consistently brings them back to the gatekeepers: the editors, bloggers, and influencers who decide what’s next and authentic for the community and industry.
The latest development, gatekeepers extending their own reach throughout the spectrum with mobile applications with the blessing from the sought-after brands, poses additional challenges for entities that cannot interact on a granular level. For Big Retail, driving footfall and sales isn’t a lost cause, but the game must evolve, both culturally and digitally.