Since the dawn of the industry, sneaker releases have been plagued by accusations of unfair dealing. Old ‘heads tell stories of their plug at Footlocker. Some collectors even became their own plug and got retail jobs themselves. All the while, anyone out of the loop was forced to wait in line like they were buying Coldplay concert tickets. It wasn’t elegant, but after an L or two, most savvy enthusiasts had shaken enough hands in release lines to develop their own store network.
Frustration with this dynamic of physical releases (which are still alive and well in certain stores, FYI) was part of the reason some saw monobrand e-commerce as a great equalizer. As long as you memorized the site layout, had your card number ready, and God forbid woke up on time, you could cop with swiftness before that schmo at the front of the mall line could even set foot in-store. That was the idea, anyways.
In reality, online releases were plagued with their own unfairness right out of the gate. Bored students with cursory knowledge of Python could easily code an automated buying program (“bot” – yeah, yeah, I know) that could ping websites thousands of times a second, using backdoor links to siphon off multiple pairs at 8:00:01AM.
The result? Even with good coffee and an early alarm, your chances of copping Doernbecher Js were realistically no better online than off. Ironically, online launches had indeed equalized the market – with good bots, they were just as opaque as offline releases.
That’s not to suggest, however, that brands took this sitting down. Sneaker companies would discover then patch exploits; bot engineers would discover then exploit new loopholes. Sneaker companies would complicate buying processes; bot engineers would develop simple solutions. The back-and-forth between brands and botters continues to this day.
And so, we arrive at the present: after a decade’s worth of compounding complication, today’s sneaker releases are convoluted, confusing, and just plain tacky. Let’s dive in.
Say you live in London and want a pair of Nike HyperAdapt 1.0’s. First, you’ll have to download an app. Then, you’ll use that app to schedule a try-on appointment days in advance. Finally, you can exchange currency for product.
Or, say you're a sneakerhead who lives outside a major metropolis and want to not fight bots for a pair of the latest YEEZY Boosts straight from the source. Well, tough luck.
Better yet, say you live in "Confirmed" cities like New York, LA, or Chicago, and want to avoid battling sneaker bots for a pair of the latest YEEZY Boosts straight from the source. First, you’ll have to download an app. Then, you’ll glue yourself to Twitter to watch for when to use that app. Finally, you’ll rapidly tap a button within that app for the opportunity to answer to a catchpa that may just let you exchange currency for product.
All the while, some Chinese hackers scored 80 pairs by exploiting that very same app.
Virgil Abloh, whose own recent sneaker release involved more than its fair share of intricate obstacles, said it himself: “To those 12 kids that snuck in [to Nike OFF-CAMPUS], or all the kids that are live streaming around the world, in markets that still don’t understand how to get the shoe: I’m with you, I don’t know where they get sold. I’m equally confused.”
Last week in Berlin, if you were lucky enough to have the SNEAKRS app open at exactly 3PM, it would lead you to a truck where you could use an augmented reality feature to buy a pair of the Virgil Abloh x Nike Air Force 1. While the experience had a certain enjoyable novelty, products - let alone shoes - shouldn't be this hard to acquire.
So when is enough, well, enough?
For clarity’s sake, I don’t disparage Nike, adidas, or others for their well-intentioned attempts. As someone who takes more Ls than a Brooklyn commuter, I’d love a sneaker market where the playing field is well and truly level. However, as a realist (and the proud possessor of self-awareness), today’s convoluted sneaker releases are an overreaction for all the wrong reasons.
To quote Patton: “If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, then anything built by man can be overcome.” Building in more flaming hoops for the average shopper only truly delays the inevitable: that bots will run the table online. Worst of all, there are legitimate incentives on both sides to make those flaming hoops burn brighter.
On one hand, the rise of efficient resale (thanks to sites like Grailed and StockX) has provided the bot cycle with a big – and scalable – cash incentive, fueling a never-ending push to break old systems. Bot makers make money two ways: by selling bots to frustrated consumers and aspiring resellers alike (a copy of AIOBot will cost you a cool $325), and then reselling pairs acquired themselves with advanced software. Just like the “Race” mode on a V6 Mustang, you can bet what you’re buying has been heartily detuned from what the pros drive. There’s just no reason for brands to believe that “fighting back” with convoluted web releases will halt this.
On the other, intricate releases make for great press coverage. In a world where people will buy your product regardless, why not milk the marketing opportunity? Take this summer’s adidas x Alexander Wang Collection 2 drop: mysterious “text to buy” posters sprang up around New York City, giving interested sneakerheads mere hours to buy shoes that would go on to sell out globally just one week later. The appearance of the posters was a story; the tight timeline before global release was a story; and, to cap it all off, the delivery of goods by branded bike messengers was a story itself. While adidas x Wang was a more intentional marketing activation than, say, a secret Supreme sign-up gone awry, the two inadvertently achieved the same result: eyeballs on limited product, and the cultural cachet that follows.
With these two forces (and the very real money powering them) in mind, any complicated sneaker release that isn’t purely a marketing play looks unnecessary at best and naïve at worst.
People will trade favors. People will misplace disappointment as anger. People will desire that which they can’t have more than things they can. So why waste time and resources on both sides with increasingly-complicated responses?
To the owners of physical stores, stick to random pop-ups, pre-registered raffles or true surprise drops (I see you, Burn Rubber). They’re the “least worst” way to allocate major releases, especially since the literal riot over Supreme x Nike Foamposites made any sort of physical line-up tenuous at best.
To the owners of online stores including the brands themselves, just keep it simple. Not to sound like a broken record, but raffles are a good solution to the fact that bots have wrung every iota of “skill” or “fairness” out of a “first come, first served” release model. Embrace that fact, design for simplicity, then clearly message both times and expectations around how to win. But even raffles, something we understand to be fair and democratic, become tiresome when stores pre-charge our credit cards or ask us to tag three friends in the caption in order to secure the privilege of buying shoes at retail.
Look to Nike x Virgil Abloh’s “THE DRAW” as the model procedure: it was random, user friendly, and even came with its own FAQ. The non-drawn (me included) may still have been disappointed, but compared to a failed checkout because some bot yanked the size I had carted, it wasn’t adversarial.
While we don’t know what the future holds (Biometric identification? Release day auctions?), the only real solution, in my mind, to this arms race of release day absurdity is acceptance. Think you got shafted by bot farmers or wayward employees? You’re not alone. Post in the salt thread, fire off some all-caps tweets, and if you still really want the shoe itself (not just “the thrill of the chase” that countdown clocks and preview photos so often inspire), just chill, and remember that there are a handful of great sneakers releasing next weekend, the weekend after, and so on.
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