What happened to the sneaker boutique?

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve only been back buying sneakers for a few years now. Not quite recently enough to be late to the party chasing the hype stuff, but long enough to remember walking into my local shop and being able cop a recent collab released weeks or months before.

There was something special about wandering in on a weekend and seeing those pairs sitting on the shelf, being able to inspect the materials and maybe even try them on. It seems now we are given a few weeks to decide based on oversaturated glamour pics and cute nicknames and descriptions, we are fed daily by every major blog out there. On release day that timeline is crunched into about 5 seconds of decision making as you rush to checkout and hope you don’t get the dreaded inventory issues message. Struck out? Time to either pay resale or move on to the next one.

The beauty of having a local boutique is that for most limited releases they have traditionally held releases in-store first and if any pairs remain they go online. In other words, take care of your local, loyal customers first and then let the masses have at it. I say traditionally because that doesn’t seem to be the case any more, at least not in my experience. For the past year I’ve watched as releases I’ve anticipated continue to either go online or to the shiny new store in another city. I guess “local” is all relative.

Not all sneaker collectors are lucky enough to live near a local shop carrying limited releases, much less some of the globally known boutiques out there. Those of us who are fortunate tend to make these stores our hangout spot. I mentioned in my Sneak Peek that I would stop by the local shop every weekend and take my daughters with me. The guys in the shop became friends, and not just because they were the source for sneakers. We talked about kicks but also about life and politics and family. Texts were exchanged on birthdays and holidays. It never felt like they were pushing product like your local mall store employees trying to sell you insoles for your new purchase.

Over time the staff came and went but the core remained and the relationships grew. At the same time, the higher ups outside the shop started making strategic decisions that meant more releases went online and less came to the store. I kept hearing of promises made and not kept. Change was coming for the better. This was probably two years ago.

Some of the employees stayed on but many more left. I noticed a change in the attitude and enthusiasm of the diehards and even in the other loyal customers. It wasn’t the same any more. Despite the best efforts of the in-store employees, the quality of the product and lack of community involvement was obvious.

It is a theme I seem to see and hear often outside of my circle, too. It made me wonder “why is this happening?” In my opinion it comes down to two main issues.

First, I credit the rise of the collab and the apparent desire for shops to outdo one another and make a name for themselves outside of their local area. An offshoot of this is the growth of personalities who either own or run the shops. Instead of being a location and destination it has become about portraying a lifestyle and developing trends. “The most premium materials ever put on a shoe” and “game-changers” are so prevalent it has become laughable.

Second, and this is more relevant to my discussion, the apparent desire of big box stores to get involved in the boutique level has brought a new mentality and approach to business. The focus is less on the local customer and more about applying the mall store mentality of metrics and rules and sales goals. When someone owns tens or hundreds of stores, I’m not sure they can identify unique personalities for each location. Instead, the corporate approach is taken and once a store is up and running the hunt is on for the next one. The unfortunate part is the customers in those new locations will likely accept what they get because they don’t know what it used to be like at the original location.

As a businessman I understand the power of the dollar. Sales have to be there, rent has to be paid, paychecks cut and all the other fun expenses. But at the same time when a shop only gets 12-16 pairs of an exclusive release and only 10-12 stores globally get that release, is it really necessary to put them online or not spread them over the multiple locations? The shoes are going to sell either way. Why not give the local and loyal customers the opportunity to purchase first? Again, I think the answer is because the people in charge either don’t care or don’t even understand.

In the end, they are just shoes. Missing out on a release is not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, there is something to be said for loyalty and shopping local. To compound that, seeing the employees who become your friends lose their passion for the culture and get overlooked or go unheard, it is disappointing.

I hate being the old guy talking about “the good old days” but in this case I had to put it out there for discussion. Who else is seeing this out there at their local shop? Is the race for international recognition done at the expense of the people who helped get them there?

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13 thoughts on “What happened to the sneaker boutique?

  1. I live in a small unfashionable city in Japan. For me, there is no local shop to buy limited releases. I pay a reseller in Tokyo or shop on the net with fingers crossed. I can pick up most of the pairs I want, but I have to pay a little more than retail. My reseller is a really good guy who asks reasonable prices. I envy your story of popping into the local boutique. I’d love to be able to do this once a week and talk kicks. The feeling of being a valued customer must have been pleasant too. Let’s hope that the current situation is just a phase and in several years we can get back to the way it was. Most people buy stuff and just post a pic on Instagram, then let it gather dust on a shelf. They are already camping out for the next release. People have stated the phenomenal success of NMD, but in my eyes, this has had a negative effect on our community. It seems to have turned everyone into a “sneaker head” overnight. Anyway, totally agree with your comments.

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    • Thanks for the feedback and for sharing your story. That’s exactly what I want this site to become. It was fun to stop by the shop and talk about everything and anything. Beyond the sneaker aspect it was about friendship but also me being able to share something with my girls. I’m sure the tide will turn and those of us in it for the love of the sneakers will still be around. I agree with you on the NMD comment but I also look at it from a different perspective. All those people scooping up our Asics and Sauconys and Reeboks are now distracted by the new pretty girl on the block so it leaves more for the rest of us!

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  2. What’s up man! Sadly, here in the OkC area, we don’t have that sneaker boutique. Never have as far as I can remember and I’m 39. But I have been around them for a long time, like you and even tho I can’t relate to going to my store every week, I can totally agree with the direction that the sneaker game has been going and it has got to stop. Bottom line, they are shoes that cover our stinky feet. And for people like me in an area that only has corporate stores and then the corporate employees in a completely different state or country, decide what we like and get to buy…it fn sucks man!!! I am working on a revolution for our state and maybe even farther, to bring the community that rotates around sneakers back together and back to reality and bring back the love and memories that most of us have with sneakers… #UNIFIEDSOLES … keep writing and I’ll keep reading!

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  3. Completely agree with your points, but to expand a little – I think there is a wider issue with retail in general where the little guys either get trodden on by the big boys, or killed with prices of property in good areas. I live in the UK, and other than a couple of the big retailers there is nothing nearby so it means a trip to London for access to a specialist shop. Even then, as you say it’s a numbers game – I’m 45 years old and don’t fancy camping for new releases (it’s cold here!). I’m not looking for a profit, I’m looking for a new pair of shoes that I like to wear.

    I think most of the issue is that what used to just be a thing for people who liked sneakers is now seen as a quick way to make money by people in reselling and by shops/ manufacturers who drive up the hype and the two parts end up perpetuating the other.

    Sorry for the ramble – nice article, keep up the good work!

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    • Not a ramble at all – I want to create dialogue. Too many of these blogs just post content for us to consume and don’t want to hear what we have to say. I agree with you completely about the direction things are heading for the stores. At the same time the manufacturers are choking them out by making them buy the already stale product in order to be able to buy the releases people want. Suddenly they are stuck with inventory they can’t move and the debt mounts. Feeling like the reseller thing is dying down finally based on how shoes are sitting these days. Beyond the obvious hyped stuff, most new releases are easier to come by this year. Thanks for your comment and input and I hope to keep this going.

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  4. I’m pretty new to collecting but so far for me it’s the combo of hypebeast marketing blogs (I honestly have no idea what’s editorial vs paid advertising on most blogs/instagram these days) + resellers that have made this community less fun. I’ve been in lines, watching guys just keep getting back in line or turning up with 10 people and buying out most/all stock. Even seen two dudes get in a punch up over a last pair of NMDs… this all makes it feel cold/manipulative rather than a community that I want to be a part of. That said, I like to think there are still people who genuinely love sneakers out there.

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    • I couldn’t agree with you more. Most blogs now are just ads for shoes or regurgitating press releases. And yes some of us do still do this for the love of it all and not the hype or the fame or money. Keep doing it that way yourself please.

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  5. Happy to see that so many people have responded to your first few posts. I’ve been thinking about this a lot within the last week. Well, maybe not particularly the case of the disappearing boutique, but about the concept of a quality sneaker blog.

    I’m regularly disgusted when reading the major sneaker news blogs. Nothing there could be deemed anything like real journalism. What I’ve come to expect is something like browsing a magazine with up to 95% ads and a chunk of substance from time to time. Hidden advertisements have become the norm and we’re bombarded with them from small Instagram influencers alllll the way to the ‘respectable’ sneaker websites. I find discussion with friends that are passionate about these products to be radically more fulfilling than reading these major news sites, and that’s why I’m genuinely excited about blogs like yours.

    We are passionate about a product. Our hobby, our interest is directly related to consuming. And advertisement goes hand in hand with consumption. There’s no way to avoid it. This is the reality of our situation. That doesn’t mean that conversations with substance are nowhere to be found in relation to sneakers. It’s just hard to find them on the major blogs. Small, personal, and genuine blogs are able to create a space for people to discuss what they love, and I’m excited to see this one starting.

    Oh, and as far as the problem of the sneaker boutique I can’t say that it’s one that I’m familiar with. In Lubbock, we have a mall with a ton of general release stuff, but anything limited must be bought elsewhere or online. I’ve been shopping online since the mid 2000s for sneakers and though my taste in sneakers swings heavily from year to year (some years I’m fine with decent GRs, others I avoid them), the Internet has always been my option.

    ANYWAY, I’m happy to see you starting, and I hope all goes well.

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  6. I completely agree, since the recent changes I’ve even taken my own step back and asked myself if I should keep going with sneakers. The excitement isn’t there for me. I catch myself wearing other shoes like sperrys and just have everything else collect dust in the corner. I never would have thought my love for something so close to my heart like sneakers would fade away but maybe it’s a sign to move on to great things. I’ve created great friendships and also met and bonded with people like yourself with the love of sneakers. It’s always been more than who had the hottest, most expensive, or rarest pair. It’s been about the lifestyle. The journey. An just the all out great feeling it was to lace up a fresh pair of clean shoes everyday.

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