The Rise of Sneaker Culture
Before the rise of social media, those with common interests in niche categories created subcultures through online forums and in-person meetups. The sneaker subculture was no different. What started on sites like Reddit and NikeTalk soon became Instagram and Twitter. Camping out at physical stores for the latest drop is even becoming a memory of the past, as limited releases slowly move to online platforms. But as the industry changes, one thing must always be constant—authenticity.
Authenticity has always been at the core of sneaker culture. In this game, brands do not sell out and survive. They know their story and they stick to it, ensuring that each item of clothing is crafted with years of subculture and storytelling. The quick turnaround nature of streetwear drops allows these brands to remain relevant in an ever changing landscape, which typically lends itself quite nicely to keeping up their narrative through purpose-driven work. Knowing you might upset a few people is well worth it if it means maintaining your authentic voice, and loyal followers, in return. This is why we see brands like Nike taking public stances on certain issues, like supporting Colin Kaepernick. This may have lost them a number of customers but it also solidified their newfound commitment to authenticity. As Nike proclaimed in the ad, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." Historically, the brand has made an effort to solely focus on athletic performance—drowning out all other noise when you’re in the game, so to speak. Now, they are boldly setting the standard for how brands can join conversations and do so using an authentic, strong voice.
eCommerce Enters Chat
In the early timeline of sneaker culture, brands turned to outsourcing their digital shopping experiences. Retail stores engulfed by long lines and marketplaces like eBay ran the gamut, while brand-owned eCommerce platforms simply did not exist. But as the days of surface-level consumerism come to an end, and product becomes more and more purpose driven, sneaker brands are finally finding their footing.
This is largely because eCommerce platforms can no longer just serve as a shopping experience. As consumers begin considering the brands they’re supporting and looking for that authentic story and craft in a sea of fast-fashion, eCommerce has become an opportunity to tell that story. For the ones doing it right, it has become just another extension of the brand—sharing stories, beliefs, and missions at every touch point.
When sneaker brands decided to send consumers elsewhere, they lost years of invaluable data. They cut off any way to communicate with and learn from their customers, while other retailers thrived off their product. In 2006, Zappos was the number one online sneaker retailer, and they didn’t even sell Nike until the following year. And while the in-store campout isn’t dead yet, limited releases cause enough headache to push brands even further to online shopping. Here, there’s little risk of bad behavior, and no need for extra personnel or preparation at the store.
Sneaker Culture Paves The Way
Soon enough, we start to see the rise of sites like StockX and GOAT, and brands like Nike and Adidas using their eCommerce platforms as a place to continue their stories. For the former, authenticity becomes an even larger player, not just in narrative but in physical product. Early on, no matter how much research you did, when you bought off of a marketplace like eBay there was still a big chance you ended up with a fake. Today, retailers like StockX and GOAT put systems in place to maintain their authenticity and gain the consumers’ trust. And much of that is reliant on the shopping experience itself. In fact, in a world where consumers often expect 2-day shipping, StockX shoppers know to expect extended delivery times so that the original seller can send their product to StockX first for authentication. These luxury sneaker brand sites are not messy and chaotic, but tailored and intuitive retail experiences. Even eBay has taken steps towards rebuilding its reputation for authenticity, implementing its own certification process. Nothing is purely transactional anymore—there is a point of view and story everywhere.
With this rise in online retailers, the sneaker industry isn’t just leading eCommerce, they are shaping it. Whether out of necessity or pure innovation, eCommerce has become an engaging and interactive experience with sneakerhead-approved features like virtual try-on, and digital customization.
With personalization at the core of style—sneakers or not—Nike took to this early on by offering NikeiD, later renamed to Nike By You. By giving consumers the chance to put their own spin on the brand’s shoe, they validate their self expression and start to build relationships. What started as an online feature, first offered by Nike, has since been implemented in over 100 stores. To make the online shopping experience even more interactive, luxury brand Farfetch became the first luxury eCommerce platform to roll out virtual try-ons on their site. As consumers appreciated the opportunity to experience a product in real-time, it’s no surprise that the brand saw an increase in conversions, and reduced returns.
All this to say, sneaker brands are showing the retail industry at large that eCommerce is more than just a place to transact. It’s a place to engage, build relationships, and preach a distinctive voice. And like all communication channels, a brand’s online retailer is nothing if not authentic.