Nike Can’t Keep Doing This to Us, Can It?
The Nike sneaker-buying experience has been brutal for years. When will fans get too fed up to keep supporting the brand?
The demise of Blockbuster Video lives in my head rent-free. It’s the perfect parable about America’s brand of capitalism and what happens when people are given a choice that frees them from greed. Sort of.
Blockbuster thrived in the late ’80s and early ’90s because it scaled explosively, opening new stores and buying out competitors; in many places, it was the only way people could watch new movies that were just out of theaters. It leveraged its near-monopoly in predatory ways, charging people exorbitant late fees for movie rentals and even damaging people’s credit scores for not being able to pay those fees. We didn’t go to Blockbuster because we liked it—in fact, we hated the damn place. But we didn’t have many options. As soon as an alternative appeared in the form of streaming services, Blockbuster’s extinction loomed. It developed its own streaming service to rival Netflix’s, but it didn’t matter because we had so much built-up disdain for the way Blockbuster treated us. We reveled in its destruction.
I think about Blockbuster almost every time I use Nike’s SNKRS app.
For those of you lucky enough not to care about these things, SNKRS is one of the only ways to get limited-release Nikes: rare Jordans, Air Maxes, Dunks, or anything else you’re into. The sneakers release at exact times, usually 10 a.m. Eastern—at which point you simply open the app and try to add the shoes to your cart. The problem is, they’re virtually impossible to get. I’ve been on the app at 9:59 only for the shoes to say “sold out” immediately at 10. The same problem occurs at other retailers like Foot Locker or Eastbay. So many people are fed up with the phenomenon that you’ll see “SNKRS” trending on Twitter on just about every major release day.
There are two major reasons for this frustration. Not only does Nike intentionally underproduce the shoes to create scarcity and buzz, but automated accounts called “bots” scoop up pairs the instant they’re released so that a handful of people can hoard pairs—and then resell them for hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than retail. (There’s a good bot explainer here; it’s about streetwear brand Supreme, but the same principles apply.) The result is a nonstop streak of coming up empty-handed for all but the most mass-produced or undesirable kicks, and the company has no incentive to change.
I’ve mostly checked out on even trying to buy shoes from SNKRS or Nike. But two recent situations have been especially egregious. First: In the year since Kobe Bryant’s death, Nike has kept a tight squeeze on products fans want to commemorate the legend. The Kobe 6 “Grinch,” the commemorative Lakers jersey, and the Kobe V “Chaos” were all sold out within seconds on the app and are going for hundreds more than retail on reseller sites like StockX. Nike can’t even loosen its grip so fans can have a piece of Kobe Bryant gear? It’s indefensible.
Then, this past weekend, Michael Jordan’s son Marcus released a limited-edition version of his dad’s Air Jordan I “Freeze Out” that hardly any actual consumer was able to purchase. Meanwhile, sneaker resellers were posting pics on Instagram with literal piles of the shoe, ready to sell them for thousands. The whole thing is a scandal.
It’s all just another sign of a company understanding that it has a monopoly on a certain type of product and showing no regard for the people who line its pockets. For now, most of us who wear Jordans and Nikes will continue to try our nonexistent luck on SNKRS, but it’s never good for a company to engender this much resentment from its patrons, no matter how invincible it may seem.
One day, there’s going to be an alternative. Some way to get the shoes that we want without being beholden to Nike’s greedy, uncaring ways. It may seem impossible now, but just remember—Blockbuster was once invincible, too.