by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
On May 21, sneaker industry analyst — or sneakerologist, if you will — Matt Powell wrote a blog post for Forbes asking whether sneakerheads were important. His conclusion was that they weren’t, at least not very, and the outcry was immediate. No one likes to be told that they’re unimportant, least of all those who have convinced themselves that they must be so. After all, don’t sneakerheads drive the entire sneaker culture? Aren’t there tons of blogs and conventions and limited-release models now, all aimed at this small, leading-edge portion of the market? Sneakerheads must be important, there’s no other explanation.
But what if that’s not true? What if Matt Powell is right?
For a guy who admits to not owning a single pair, Powell has made quite the impact on sneakers. An analyst for SportsOneSource, he recently started penning the Sneakernomics column for Forbes, which has only widened his reach. The fact that Forbes is running such a column at all seems to invalidate his “sneakerheads are not important” premise. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
What Powell is best with is numbers. And what he brings to the table are actual, real-life sales figures, which come straight from sneaker companies and retailers. This is something that’s been sorely lacking in the overall sneaker discussion, which tends to focus more on ambiguous and subjective matters. Bringing measurable data in to back up (or refute) things like hype — what does a sellout actually mean? — is important.
Here’s where Powell gets himself into trouble, though: Sometimes he tries to read more into numbers than the numbers say, and, being a self-proclaimed outsider, he can be a bit tone deaf as to how they’re interpreted.
Take the concluding graf from his sneakerheads piece (italics mine): “Sneakerheads are a deeply committed community of collectors and aficionados. Sneakerheads do not represent a major portion of sneaker sales. Sneakerheads create a lot of hype and buzz that can be good for brand equity, but this brand equity is difficult, if not impossible to measure. Within the echo chamber, the voices of sneakerheads are loud, but those voices do not carry.” The first two sentences are perfect. Declarative, simple, hard to argue. And even the third one is fine. It’s based on the numbers, and admits that definitive conclusions can be “difficult, if not impossible” to reach. Then, in the VERY NEXT SENTENCE Powell draws one anyway, one that’s more or less guaranteed to elicit a reaction. Good for views, maybe not so much for truth. It sure wouldn’t fly in academia.
There have been sneakerheads for at least 30 years now.
Let’s parse. Is the sneakerhead community an “echo chamber”? To a degree, yes. Sneakerheads are like any other insular group, in which they tend to discuss their interests most with those who share their interests, whether it be in real life or on the ‘net. But that echo chamber is a large one, that encompasses not only amateur aficionados but people who call the shots at sneaker companies and mass-market publications.
There have been sneakerheads for at least 30 years now, which means they have infiltrated all levels of the process — it only makes sense that sneakerheads would seek jobs related to sneakers — thus to say sneakerheads don’t influence the industry is to conveniently ignore the fact that, at least in part, sneakerheads ARE the industry. The voices don’t have to carry far to make an impact.
But the difficulty begins far before the conclusion. The entire argument is built on a shaky foundation, as per the definitions of “sneakerhead” and “influence.” Even self-defined sneakerheads may not identify the same way, and “influence” is impossible to measure strictly on the base of sales numbers. If a kid buys a pair of Stan Smiths instead of white-on-white Air Force 1s today simply because Kanye West wore them, that’s influence. But at the register it’s impossible to differentiate that from some other kid buying Stan Smiths just because they liked white and green. Similarly, it’s easy to say retro Air Jordans are a sneakerhead staple — but walk two blocks virtually anywhere in New York City and it’s easy to see that retro Jordans are an everyone staple.
If a kid buys a pair of Stan Smiths instead of white-on-white Air Force 1s today simply because Kanye West wore them, that’s influence.
Maybe it’s possible that Powell is both right and wrong. In terms of pure sales, sneakerheads make up a relatively tiny part of the sneaker market. Sales of a super-hyped, super-limited shoe like the Yeezy don’t even measure against the juggernaut that is the Air Monarch IV (or, you know, Skechers). This doesn’t even take into account the staggering percentage of sneakers that sneakerheads buy and never even wear. Talk about an echo chamber — the only people who even see those sneakers are Instagram followers, who are no doubt sneakerheads themselves.
But at the same time, sneakerheads do not exist in a vacuum. They get hired by sneaker companies, write for major publications, and infuse the general sneaker market with their taste and opinions. A sneaker like the Jordan True Flight might not sell to sneakerheads, but it wouldn’t exist without them, either. Influence can be a tricky thing to measure, as Powell himself pointed out.
Again, let’s say Powell is right. What is the correct response? Outrage isn’t it. If the sneaker community truly is an echo chamber, said outrage will only go to each other anyway. Think sneakerhead influence is truly important? Then use it. Communicate with those outside your usual circle, speak to sneaker companies via your purchasing power. Start a blog of your own. Be the difference you want to see, or whatever that bumper sticker says. And maybe Powell’s next column on sneakerheads will come to a different conclusion.