Written by Kevin Smith (@officialKLS)
On December 27 last year, my younger brother left home and headed to our local Foot Locker. He met up with his friends around 1 p.m. and together they began the long, tiring process of waiting for a hyped shoe release. The only problem was that the “Bred” Air Jordan 1, the sneaker that they were on the hunt for, wasn’t set to drop for another 20 hours. And the fact that my brother was completely fine with waiting in line for almost a full day just to get a pair of sneakers puzzled me.
Don’t get me wrong, as a sneakerhead myself I’ve stood around in line for hours before just to get a pair of kicks, but I’ve never waited such an extreme amount of time. Why my brother would do this in nearly freezing temperatures made me really think about the current state of sneaker culture.
What really creates this obsession?
Compulsions, like deciding to wait in line hours for a pair of shoes or paying more than double the retail price is an interesting behavior.
Through some research I discovered that when a group of people deem something valuable (in this case sneakers), they believe that it increases their personal value once they get it.
It makes perfect sense. Just ask any Complex editor or sneaker blogger. It's because of this obsession that we all have jobs.
Guys think that rocking rare or exclusive kicks will help them do better with the opposite sex. And typically it does. Why do you think that some ladies save for months, even years, just to get a pair of Christian Louboutins? The only difference with buying a pair of Louboutins is that women typically don't have to wait hours on end just to get a pair.
There's actually a science to the hype of a release. Buying rare products creates a chemical reaction within our brains. Keep in mind that the brain is a very complex organ and the scientific reason for material cravings is difficult to concretely establish. While we can’t pinpoint a precise reason why someone would feel their self-worth increasing by acquiring an item, there are theories.
Retail expert and author Mark Ellwood said, “Chemicals in our brains are complicated. Compulsions, like deciding to wait in line hours for a pair of shoes or paying more than double the retail price is an interesting behavior. When we act on compulsion, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that gives a good, almost euphoric feeling. The dopamine high that comes from acquiring something that increases your worth will cause you to repeat that action over and over again to get the same result.”
In layman's terms, each time you cop a new pair of Air Jordans, you get high. The feeling from this act feels so good, that you want to replicate it, over and over. You get obsessed, just like you would with any other thing that makes you feel good.
In layman's terms, each time you cop a new pair of Air Jordans, you get high.
Ellwood also brought to my attention the theory of a Veblen good. In simple terms, this is when an item has demand that's exponentially proportional to its price. “A Veblen good is essentially a status symbol,” Ellwood explained. “When you own a Veblen good, you have essentially moved up the social ladder. You become more important by acquiring this thing and you want to pay for it.”
In sneaker culture, the more someone else wants something (like friends or someone you look up to) it makes you want that thing too.
While Ellwood was researching his latest book he looked at a very small number of brands that never go on sale. Some well-known examples include Apple computers, Louis Vuitton luggage, and of course—certain sneakers. Items that have the power of a Veblen good often see the value increase once it's acquired.
The author pointed out to me that, besides the amazing strategies that companies have to promote these products, society universally accepts that owning these goods will make you a better person.
But why does this only happen with some sneakers and not others?
Every brand wishes that it could produce Veblen goods. Adidas, Reebok, and other sneaker brands have been successful at marketing select products like this, causing the waiting effect. But, none have come anywhere close to the success of Nike, which is a Veblen brand.
Society universally accepts that owning these goods will make you a better person.
Nike has dominated the sneaker industry for years now and shoes like the retro Air Jordans my brother camped out for and other rare collabs have become Veblen goods in sneaker culture. This is because of the enormous amount of hype built around select, desirable releases. The media also contributes daily by informing the masses on specific details: the who, what, where, when, and why.
Besides Veblen goods, there is another phenomenon in the microeconomics world known as the “snob effect." Even if you don't think you're actually a snob, there's a good chance you've experienced the effect. The snob effect gives preference for goods that are different from those commonly preferred. For consumers who want to own exclusive products, they understand that a higher price equals quality. The snob effect is rampant in sneaker culture.
Specialty boutiques add to our sneaker obsession too. In her thesis on the cultivation of taste, Gina-Mary Ronquillo explained that, “private retail stores focus on conspicuous consumption of goods such as (branded) clothes, sneakers, and lifestyle products which can not be obtained from chain brand stores.” In her research, Ronquillo discovered that people are occasionally willing to pay high above the manufacturer’s set price just to own something. Sound like anyone you know?
This may explain why some sneakerheads have a feeling of being left out when they can’t keep up with the Joneses.
If you check this site on the regular, you've probably experienced this before: The more limited an item is, the better it makes you feel. For that reason, the notion of a store serving as an extension of its owner's individual personality can be factored into creating hype around sneaker culture because they want to imitate that person.
This may explain why some sneakerheads have a feeling of being left out when they can’t keep up with the Joneses. People have become addicted to social worth and sneakers have become the currency of the streetwear subculture.
Once everything was said and done on December, 28, 2013, my brother ended up getting the Air Jordan 1s— but not in his size. After waiting 20 hours, he was forced to go a half-size up because he didn't factor the possibility of the store only receiving one pair per size. To make matters worse, an employee snatched his size up before the store's doors even opened. Besides the epic wait and not getting his size, my brother was still happy with being one of the few people lucky enough to secure a pair at all.
After this happened, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't buy Air Jordans for an entire year. While I still love sneakers, their incredible designs, and recent technology, I don't think that waiting hours upon hours will increase my social worth. I'm willing to get my dopamine high somewhere else, but let's see how long that lasts.