To walk into the 3,000-square-foot Stadium Goods store in SoHo is to be confronted by rows and rows of pristine, shrink-wrapped athletic footwear. Look closely and you might be a little stunned by the price tags.
On a recent afternoon, for instance, a pair of white Nike Jordan 1’s by the fashion designer Virgil Abloh (Off-White, Louis Vuitton) originally priced at $190, was selling for $2,750. (No wonder it was enclosed in a glass case.) Nearby was a rare pair of Adidas PW Human Race NMD TR, designed by the musician Pharrell Williams. Price tag: $12,350.
This is clearly not Foot Locker.
The high-end sneaker market is big business these days, and the three-year-old Stadium Goods, a consignment reseller of rare or limited editions, has established itself as the Tiffany’s for sneakerheads.
Sneaker fanatics have been around for decades, with swaps and buys largely happening on eBay or as personal transactions. But it’s only in the last few years that the reseller market has accelerated and gone sharply upscale. John McPheters, who co-founded Stadium Goods with Jed Stiller, says the shift has been driven by “men who are now learning from childhood how to treat fashion as a sport — the way that women have always treated fashion.”
The point is not utility, but rather about expressing identity. “Sneakers are the single most flexible and acceptable way to communicate personality for these new shopping-obsessed men,” Mr. McPheters said.
Stadium Goods is clearly riding that wave. In January 2017, it secured $4.6 million in new equity funding by Forerunner Ventures (backers of, among others, Warby Parker and Bonobos) and the Chernin Group. Earlier this year, the European luxury group LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy), bought a minority stake for an undisclosed amount.
And on May 2, Stadium Goods announced it had completed a distribution deal with Farfetch, the luxury e-commerce marketplace, offering a selection of sneakers that will be available exclusively to those customers. (Stadium Goods will also continue to sell its merchandise through eBay, Amazon and Alibaba, among other outlets.)
“With its advanced technology platform that is highly regarded in the luxury industry, we believe Farfetch is a terrific partner to help us expand our global reach,” Mr. McPheters said in a statement when that deal was announced.
Before starting Stadium Club, Mr. McPheters did marketing and business development for Flight Club, a sneaker consignment shop, and later ran social media accounts for Nike while employed at the creative marketing agency Team Epiphany. Mr. Stiller, who has a background in real estate, had been an investor in various New York nightclubs. The two had previously done another start-up, Swarm Mobile, a retailing app, that was sold to Groupon in 2014.
The demand for collectible sneakers and streetwear is particularly fervent in China, Mr. McPheters said, adding that he got his first taste of that market’s potential when a Chinese customer dropped $10,000 in a single spree at the Stadium Goods store. “Often, the shoes they want were never available in their country,” he said.
He and Mr. Stiller seized an opportunity to enter the market early, launching a brand page on Alibaba’s TMall platform in 2016 just a year into its business.
Since then, sales have taken off. During Alibaba’s last Single’s Day promotion (a 24-hour shopping spree on Nov. 11 that rivals Black Friday in the United States), Stadium Goods raked in $3 million in sales. Mr. McPheters went to China to help ring the opening bell at the Shanghai Expo Center. And overall, the company brought in $100 million worldwide last year in gross merchandise volume, a closely followed measure of total website transactions.
While online sales fuel the bulk of Stadium Goods’s business, the company is also exploring an increased brick-and-mortar presence, including a shop-within-a-shop at the newly opened Nordstrom men’s wear store in midtown Manhattan.
The partners believe the future of sneaker retail will be a hybrid model combining traditional channels and aftermarket selling. “We’re a microcosm of what’s hot,” Mr. Stiller said, noting that in the sneaker world what’s trending is not necessarily the newest item. “Where a lot of retailers are dependent on what brands are releasing at the moment, we’re not. Ninety-five percent of our stock are styles that are no longer on the market.”
Stadium Goods is hardly the only player in this fast-growing field, of course.
GOAT (derived from the popular sports acronym, Greatest of All Time) has raised $97.6 million from investors like Alexis Ohanian, Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary and venture capital firms like Accel Partners and Upfront Ventures. The Culver City, Calif., company started in 2015 as a mobile-focused marketplace with what’s called a “ship-to-verify” model. (Once a sale is made, the seller sends the product to GOAT distribution centers for verification, after which it is sent out to the buyer.)
With hot sneaker styles costing $300 and up, “the last thing you want to be spending your money on is fakes,” said Mr. Lu, a co-founder and chief executive officer. “For us, it was let’s build something that solves the growing problem of counterfeits and fakes.”
In February, GOAT merged with Flight Club and the new company has since been valued at $250 million.
StockX, founded by Josh Luber a former IBM consultant who created Campless, a sneakerhead data site, and Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is a reseller model built on the concept that prices of in-demand items vary like the stock market. The company counts among its investors the actor Mark Wahlberg and the rapper Eminem. With an authenticity program akin to GOAT, StockX also adds the element of transparent pricing.
It’s built for the casual sneaker enthusiast looking for a good strike price on coveted Yeezys — like getting the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Cream White when it is selling for $380 (original price $220) and not, say, $560 — but also for those who think of sneakers as a portfolio investment. “We’re an evolution of eBay,” Mr. Luber said. He added that StockX is now bringing in about $2 million a day in gross merchandise volume.
As with the stock market, the prices fluctuate in real time (GOAT/Flight Club and Stadium Goods offer fixed pricing). There is also the possibility of a “sneaker IPO,” Mr. Luber said, pointing to a very limited release sale of new LeBron James 14 Nike shoes that StockX held last January. With just 46 pairs offered (23 of the Lebron 14 and 23 of Mr. James’ rookie season sneaker style), bidding was opened for three days, with all pairs selling for an average of $6,000 each.
“After that, we allowed seven people who bought the shoes to resell without even touching the product,” Mr. Luber said. “That’s like true day trading.”
These companies are shaking up how the resale market but they suffer from constraints, said Matt Powell, NPD Group’s sports industry analyst.
One issue is just how big this market is. “It’s very difficult to tell what the true size is because there are always going to be transactions between two private individuals,” Mr. Powell said. “But I don’t believe it’s a $1 billion market like many are saying it is.” He points to the math: “When I look at the sneakers that are resold and then add a factor of three because of the higher resale value, I’m getting closer to $300-$500 million.”
With total sneaker sales in the United States around $38 billion last year, the resale market is still relatively minor, he said.
The other obstacle to major growth is inventory; the major resellers specialize in limited-release styles. “If the manufacturer starts to get greedier,” by increasing the product, “a flood of inventory would crash the market,” Mr. Powell said. Indeed, a glut of Jordans in early 2016 drove that resell market down.
The resellers seem largely aware that sneakers can only take them so far. “Yes, our main business is sneakers right now but we’re a stock market for things,” Mr. Luber, said. StockX already sells watches, and streetwear from Supreme and Kith. The company has plans to roll out more product from streetwear designers like Fear of God. (Mr. Powell noted that streetwear has the same constraint: “What really drives the streetwear market is most of those items are, again, limited in quantity.”)
But where the slick new resellers may have a leg up is their combination of product, content and convenience, said Joe La Puma, senior vice president of content strategy at Complex who hosts “Sneaker Shopping,” a sneaker program on YouTube.
“The industry is becoming more professionalized but also I’m seeing that the customer is getting choosier about what sneaker he or she wants,” Mr. La Puma said. “So instead of buying sneakers, say, every week, they’re saving up to buy one shoe they really want.”
And there is competition from people like Benjamin Kickz, a solo reseller who runs a concierge-type service for limited-edition shoes. “He’s a young kid and he’s personally delivered Yeezy’s to me in L.A.,” Mr. La Puma said. “He’s considered the top guy in this business for the celebrities. He’s delivered Off-White Jordan 1s to Halsey and her boyfriend G-Eazy when they were in the club.”
That kind of cachet matters in this world and the top resellers all have it, Mr. La Puma emphasized. Sneakerhead consumers pay attention to what celebrities are wearing, he said.
“Specifically, Kanye West, Travis Scott, ASAP Rocky, Virgil Abloh and Jared Leto are influential in their own circles,” he said. “Not every shoe starts out super special. There’s the chance that if one of these celebrities wears it, it may then become super hot.”