BY MARTHA IRVINE, ASSOCIATED PRESS
They are lined up in the freezing rain, waiting patiently, stubbornly. All night. All for a few pairs of shoes.
Sean Rivera is among the 60 or so die-hards on this sidewalk along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile shopping district. He looks a little crazy, smiling and squinting through fogged glasses.
But the 28-year-old college counselor doesn’t care. He’s used to being judged like that, used to “being criticized by peers and family members and neighbors,” he says, laughing.
It’s all part of the life of “sneakerheads,” people who spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on shoes, many of which carry the name of professional basketball stars, past and present.
Chicagoans proudly point out that it started here with Michael Jordan and his Nike Air Jordan brand.
Rivera figures he has about 50 pairs of sneakers at home in his closet. His parents bought him his first pair of Air Jordans when he was a toddler. He carries a picture on his cell phone of his pint-sized self, wearing those very shoes. “You can see the striking resemblance,” he jokes, holding the phone with the photo next to his cheek.
In the 1990s, he and many fledgling sneakerheads used to scrape together whatever money they had and then cut class to go buy the latest pair of Jordans. Back then, news reports occasionally surfaced, telling of people who were mugged for their shoes.
Today, that fervor is growing again, fueled by online social networking, and by shoemakers such as Nike that now often limit the number of pairs they release to generate more interest.
Jesus Estrella, a blogger who has become a self-made sneaker guru on YouTube, filmed one recent melee outside a mall in Orlando, Fla.
“This shoe game officially has gone bananas,” Estrella, who is known as “JStar” in the sneakerhead community, said as he watched police arrive and then begin sending people home.
That riot and similar ones in other cities were so raucous that some stores postponed their release of new shoes. The most sought after that night was the Nike “Galaxy Foamposite,” a $225 pair of shoes made popular by former NBA player Penny Hardaway.
You don’t always know which shoe is going to be “the shoe” of the ones that are released, Estrella says.
But often, the shoes that go the quickest are those that are “reissued” — new versions of old standards, including Air Jordans and the Nike “Mag” sneakers worn by the character Marty McFly in the movie “Back to the Future.”
Consignment shops and online auctions have seen some of those shoes resell for thousands of dollars, while others sit on shelves longer and sell for less. A pair of original Air Jordans in good condition — bought by the most serious collectors — can sell today for $4,000 to $5,000. “Back to the Future” Mags, originally released to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation and Parkinson’s research, go for that much, or more.
Meanwhile, Rivera recently sold a pair of LeBron James “South Beach” Nikes, which he bought for $170 in late 2010, for $900.
“People try to finance their (shoe) habit,” says LaVelle “V-DOT” Sykes, who owns a Chicago shop called Overtime, where he and his staff sell sneakers on consignment.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m going to ‘rock’ one pair and sell two,” he says, referring to people who wear one pair and try to find buyers for the others.
“You see moms, pops, aunties, all kinds of people, across all color lines.”
Often, though, sneakerheads are young men in their teens, 20s and 30s, many of whom now use the Internet to show off their “kicks,” as they call their shoes.
And companies like Nike are using that instant, word-of-mouth communication to their benefit, marketing experts say.
“When I started in this business back in the ’60s, there was no such thing as a blogger,” says Michael Carberry, a former advertising executive who is now a marketing professor at American University in Washington.
Now, he says, bloggers are a key advertising component: “They talk it up: ‘Did you hear about the new Nike that’s coming out? . You gotta be there.’”
Limiting the supply — a tactic sometimes called “artificial scarcity” — also fuels the demand in an age when young people are bombarded with products and looking for ways to stand out.
“It’s harder and harder to make yourself different and distinct. Everybody has access to the same stuff,” says Gary Rudman, president of California-based GTR Consulting, which tracks the habits of young people.
“They’re constantly trying to update the brand called ‘Me.’”
They do it with anything from clothes to electronic devices or even video game skills. For sneakerheads, it’s all about showing off your shoes to gain credibility with your peers, he says.
Dina Mayzlin, an associate professor of marketing at Yale University, refers to this dynamic as “social signaling” — associating yourself with a hard-to-get brand to build status.
So companies are, in turn, limiting access to a product or service to create a buzz and reputation of coolness.
She and her colleagues have, for instance, studied Google and Spotify, an online music service — both of which have initially made some services available to consumers by invitation only.
“It’s a bit of a puzzle — why would the company early on try to slow down the adoption of their product?” she says.
She found that the goal for Google, with Google+, or Spotify was to eventually try to draw in even more members who wanted what the initial members had.
When you factor in what it costs to design and promote the limited edition shoes, Nike may not make as much money on them as it would if they were mass produced, Carberry says.
But the publicity they generate is priceless for the brand. “The buzz is what works for them and it just enhances the aura of Nike,” he says — and, in turn, generates more overall shoe sales to those who might not be able to afford a limited edition pair, but still want to attach themselves to the brand.
Because of the chaos it has created, some have questioned whether Nike has gone too far with its limited edition shoes and hyped releases. A Nike spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the company is looking for ways to avoid the mayhem created by recent shoe releases. But in February, the company did issue a statement stressing the importance of “consumer safety and security.”
To cut back on crowds, some stores already hand out a limited number of tickets to consumers before a shoe release. Without a ticket, you can’t enter the store.
Estrella, the blogger and YouTube sneakerhead, says there is little doubt that the recession is contributing to the havoc because more people are looking for ways to make a fast buck. But he thinks most sneakerheads are in it for more than that.
It’s about fashion and sports, he says. It’s about friendship and having a common interest.
“For me, it’s like I’m wearing art on my feet,” he says.
It’s much the same for the sneakerheads who lined up in Chicago, and who speak with pride about their extensive shoe collections.
Some talk with a bit of disdain about newer sneakerheads, whom they accuse of only being in it to try to make money. But Sykes, the consignment shop owner who is a longtime sneakerhead himself, doesn’t.
“Americans are opportunists. This is the land of making something from nothing. And then people complain about it?” he says.
“Would you rather that a kid resell shoes, or sell drugs?
“I’d rather he stand in line and sell shoes.”