By John Rolfe
Behold the humble sneaker. First patented by Wait Webster in the 1832 and
refined as the 19th century went along, this rubber-soled casual footwear holds a special place among mankind’s most versatile creations. It’s comfortable, functional, a fashion statement, a status symbol, an investment commodity, a social event and just about anything short of a floor wax and dessert topping.
Sneakers have also made for pretty good exercise equipment. In fact, the industry got much healthier due to Covid-19. So did retailers like Lester Wasserman, proprietor of West NYC on West 72nd Street in Manhattan, a shop specializing in hard-to-find, limited edition athletic sneakers as well as mainstream, non-sports lifestyle editions.
According to RunRepeat.com, the pandemic propelled people to take up running. Of the 3,961 folks the athletic shoe experts surveyed, nearly 29% had started during the past 14 months while the virus was rampaging. Nearly three-quarters of them cited their physical and mental health as motivating factors.
With many gyms closed or their capacity restricted, folks took to outdoor walking and running, creating demand for appropriate footwear. Sales, which had previously peaked in 2013 when athletic shoes were mainly a fashion trend, rebounded nicely. Brooks Running, one of the leading brands, expects to reach its goal of $1 billion in annual revenue.
Though many running events were canceled or postponed because of the virus, the competitive-minded found an outlet in virtual races: register online, choose your own starting line — it could be your treadmill or a local street — run the distance, upload your time and get a medal in the mail. Notably, the Boston and New York marathons have offered virtual alternatives.
But even if you aren’t keen to break an aerobic sweat, you can still use sneakers to get your heart rate up. Similar to the Robinhood/GameStop stock shorting caper, sneaker apps have gamified buying among a robust social media community. Trading in kicks (a slang term for cool sneakers) has long been lucrative, but the pandemic got more people doing it because they lost their job and/or side hustle and needed money, or due to simple cabin fever boredom.
Wait Webster would probably be gobsmacked to know his prototype has evolved into an alternative asset class typically found on web platforms like StockX, GOAT, or Farfetch. StockX's site and app resemble an equities-trading site with a ticker, product pages, historical price charts, and sales stats that help pro sellers make a handsome living.
For example, if there's an ample supply at a brick and mortar store, an “investor” can rake in bucks by snapping them up and peddling them online at a profit. Nike limited editions, which sell via lottery for $100-$150 retail, will fetch two- or three-times as much in secondary venues. No wonder the resale market is worth an estimated $10 billion, according to the research firm Piper Sandler, up from $6 billion in 2019. It is expected to hit a robust $30 billion by 2030.
All of this is not exactly an unpleasant development for Lester Wasserman and his family, which has been in the shoe business for generations. Working tirelessly, the Wassermans kept their three stores including Tip Top Shoes, open through the pandemic, in part with their thriving online business, and have become retail royalty on the well-heeled west side of Manhattan.
Lester Wasserman’s West NYC is a hip young man’s dream, with aisles of trendy sports clothes and shoes. It even has its own running club. Its clientele stands a chance of seeing celebrities such as Lenny Kravitz, Chris Rock or Tony Danza there, either as fellow customers or salesmen for their own endorsed models. The store has so much cachet that it does a brisk sale of eponymous T-shirts.
On summer evenings, it’s not unusual to see up to a dozen male teenagers or young adults camped out in front. And “camped out” is literally true — some will stay all night to establish their place in line, bringing lounge chairs and food. It looks more like the line to Lollapalooza than a shoe store.
“Some of those who are out there all night are looking to resell them for a profit while other customers legitimately want the shoes,” Wasserman says. “The real story is there are a finite numbers of pairs per store and customers are looking for access.” For run-of-the-mill customers, he adds, “We carry shoes for $50 all the way to $300 with the sweet spot being $150.
The kicks market isn’t all that different from the one for hot concert tickets. It runs on avid fans, hype, scarcity, and coveted limited editions like retro Air Jordans or Yeezys, with shoes bearing the names or design input of athletes and celebrities generating the most excitement and dough. A company like Nike will drop limited releases on an app or in local shops. Fans then line up for the lottery and post on social media about their adventures.
Unfortunately, the pandemic and its consequences have slowed this frenzied activity a bit. “Inventory continues to be a challenge, as the supply chain has been adversely affected,” Wasserman says. “Chinese factories were closed for several months and securing inventory continues to be a problem.” As a result, some folks are waiting weeks for their preferred style or brand, but wait they surely will.
After all, shortage only fuels hype and demand, which pumps up even ordinary lines of athletic shoes. Buyers are willing to sit on apps for hours a day, and monitor social media, all in the quest to land just one pair.
We’re a long way from the day Mr. Webster first glued India rubber soles to common puddle jumpers. No doubt, many a merchant would like to be in Lester Wasserman’s shoes.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.