The Economics of Sneaker Reselling

Photo from the New York Times.

Buying athletic shoes and reselling them for a higher price has become a popular way for some people to make money. The mostly young entrepreneurs involved in this business are often called sneakerheads.  Note that economists call buying a product at a low price and reselling it at a high price arbitrage.  The profits received from engaging in arbitrage are called arbitrage profits.  One estimate puts the total value of sneakers being resold at $2 billion per year.

            Why would anybody buy sneakers from a sneakerhead that they could buy at a lower price online or from a retail store? Most people wouldn’t, which is why most sneakerheads resell only shoes that shoe manufacturers like Nike or Adidas produce in limited quantities—typically fewer than 50,000 pairs. To obtain the shoes, shoe resellers use two main strategies: (1) waiting in line at retail stores on the day that a new limited quantity shoe will be introduced, or (2) buying shoes online using a software application called a bot. A bot speeds up a buyer’s checkout process for an online sale. Typical customers buying at an online shoe site take a few minutes to choose a size, fill in their addresses, and provide their credit card information. But a few minutes is enough time for shoe resellers using bots to buy all of the newly-released shoes available on the site.

            In addition to reselling shoes on their own sites, many sneakerheads use dedicated resale sites like StockX and GOAT. These sites have greatly increased the liquidity of sneakers, or the ease with which sneakers can be resold. In effect, limited-edition sneakers have become an asset like stocks, bonds, or gold because they can be bought and sold in the secondary market that exists on the online resale sites. (We discuss the concepts of primary and secondary markets for assets in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2.)

            An article in the New York Times gives an example of the problems that bots can cause for retail shoe stores. Bodega, a shoe store in Boston, offered the limited-edition New Balance 997S sneaker on its online site. Ten minutes later, the shoe was sold out. One of the store’s owner was quoted as saying: “We got destroyed by bots. It was making it impossible for our average customers to even have a shot at the shoes.” Although the store had a policy of allowing customers to buy a maximum of three pairs of shoes, shoe resellers were able to get around the policy by having shoes shipped to their friends’ addresses or by having a group of people coordinate their purchases. An article on bloomberg.com described how one reseller along with 15 of his friends used bots to buy 600 pairs of Adidas’s Yeezy sneakers from an online site on the morning the sneakers were released. Adidas has a rule that each customer can buy only one pair of its limited-edition shoes, but the company has trouble enforcing the rule. 

            Shopify and other firms have developed software that retailers can use to make it difficult for resellers to use bots on the retailers’ sites. But the developers of bot software have often been able to modify the bots to get around the defenses used by the anti-bot software. 

            In contrast with owners of retail stores, Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and the other shoe manufacturers have a more mixed reaction to sneakerheads using bots scooping up most pairs of limited-edition shoes shortly after the shoes are released. Like the owners of retail stores, the shoe manufacturers know that they risk upsetting the typical customer if the customer can only buy hot new shoe releases from resellers at prices well above the original retail price. But an active resale market increases the demand for shoes, just as individual investors increased their demand for individual stocks when it became possible to easily buy and sell stocks online using sites like TD Ameritrade, E*Trade, and Fidelity. So manufacturers benefit from knowing that most of their limited-edition shoes will sell out. One industry analyst singled out “The durability of Nike’s … ability to fuel the sneaker resale ecosystem ….” as a particular strength of the company. In addition, manufacturers may believe that the publicity about limited edition shoes rapidly selling out may spill over to increased demand for other shoes the manufacturers sell. (In Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.3 we note that some consumers may receive utility from buying goods that are widely seen as popular and fashionable.)

            In the long run, is it possible for sneakerheads to make a profit reselling shoes? It seems unlikely for the reasons we discuss in Microeconomics and Economics, Chapter 12, Section 12.5. The barriers to entry in reselling sneakers are very low. Anyone can list shoes for sale on StockX or one of the other resale sites. Waiting in line in front of a retail store on the day a new shoe is released is something that anyone who is willing to accept the opportunity cost of the time lost can do. Similarly, bots that can be used to scoop up newly released shoes from online sites are widely available for sale. So, we would expect that in the long run entry into sneaker reselling will compete away any economic profit that sneakerheads were earning.

            In fact, by the summer of 2022, prices on reselling sites were falling. In just the month of June, the average price of sneakers listed on StockX declined by 20 percent. Resellers who had stockpiled shoes waiting for prices to increase were instead selling them because they feared that prices would go even lower. And new limited-edition shoes were taking longer to sell out. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “A pair of Air Jordans released on July 13 [2022] that might have once vanished in minutes took days to sell out from Nike Inc.’s virtual shelves.” One reseller quoted in the Wall Street Journal article indicated that entry was the reason that prices were falling: “You don’t want prices to go down, but they’re going down anyways, just because of how many people are selling in general.”

            Although a seemingly unusual market, sneaker reselling is subject to the same rules of competition that we see in other markets. 

Sources: Inti Pacheco, “Flipping Air Jordans Is No Longer a Slam Dunk,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2022;  Shoshy Ciment, “Sneaker Reselling Side Hustle: Your Guide to Making Thousands Flipping Hyped Pairs of Dunks, Jordans, and Yeezys,” businessinsider.com, May 3, 2022;  Teresa Rivas, “A Strong Sneaker-Resale Market Is Another Boon for Nike,” barrons.com, May 24, 2022; Curtis Bunn, “Sneakers Are So Hot, Resellers Are Making a Living Off of Coveted Models,” nbcnews.com, October 23, 2021; Daisuke Wakabayashi, “The Fight for Sneakers,” New York Times, October 15, 2021; and Joshua Hunt, “Sneakerheads Have Turned Jordans and Yeezys Into a Bona Fide Asset Class,” bloomberg.com, February 15, 2021.

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