Meet the "sneakerheads" who will pay $5,000 for a pair of old trainers (and queue up in the street overnight to get them)

Meet the 'sneakerheads' who will pay $5,000 for a pair of old trainers (and queue up in the street overnight to get them)Meet the 'sneakerheads' who
will pay $5,000 for a pair of old trainers (and queue up in the street overnight
to get them)

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UPDATED:

22:51 GMT, 20 March 2012

They are lined up in the freezing rain, waiting patiently, stubbornly. All night. All for a few pairs of shoes.

Sean Rivera is among the 60 or so diehards on this sidewalk along Chicago's Magnificent Mile shopping district. He looks a little crazy, smiling and squinting through fogged glasses.

But the 28-year-old college counsellor doesn't care. He's used to being judged like that, used to 'being criticised by peers and family members and neighbours,' he says, laughing.

Top prize: Jesus 'Jstar' Estrella, a sneakerhead blogger, says that sometimes the demand for the sports shoes is so high there are riots outside the shops

Top prize: Jesus 'Jstar' Estrella, a sneakerhead blogger, says that sometimes the demand for the sports shoes is so high there are riots outside the shops

It's all part of the life of
'sneakerheads', people who spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on
shoes, many of which carry the name of professional basketball stars,
past and present.

Chicagoans proudly point out that it started here with Michael Jordan and his Nike Air Jordan brand.

Mr
Rivera figures he has about 50 pairs of sneakers at home. His parents
bought him his first pair of Air Jordans when he was a toddler. He
carries a picture on his cell phone of his pint-sized self, wearing
those very shoes.

'You can see the striking resemblance,' he jokes, holding the phone with the photo next to his cheek.

In the 1990s, he and many fledgling
sneakerheads used to scrape together whatever money they had and cut
class to go buy the latest pair of Jordans. Back then, news reports
occasionally surfaced, telling of people who were mugged for their
shoes.

Today, that fervour
is growing again, fuelled by online social networking, and by shoemakers
such as Nike that now often limit the number of pairs they release to
generate more interest.

Out in the cold: The commitment to snagging the hottest limited-editiion trainers mean that sneakerheads will camp out overnight in the freezing Chicago rain

Out in the cold: The commitment to snagging the hottest limited-editiion trainers mean that sneakerheads will camp out overnight in the freezing Chicago rain

Jesus Estrella, a blogger who has
become a self-made sneaker guru on YouTube, filmed one recent melee
outside a mall in Orlando, Florida.

'This
shoe game officially has gone bananas,' Mr Estrella, who is known as JStar in the sneakerhead community, said as he watched police arrive
and then begin sending people home.

That riot and similar ones in other cities were so raucous that some stores postponed their release of new shoes.

The
most sought after that night was the Nike Galaxy Foamposite, a $225
pair of shoes made popular by former NBA player Penny Hardaway.

'People try to finance their shoe
habit. They'll
say, “I'm going to rock one pair and sell two”'

You don't always know which shoe is going to be 'the shoe' of the ones that are released, says Mr Estrella.

Often,
the most popular shoes are those that are reissued – new versions of
old standards, including Air Jordans and the Nike Mag sneakers worn by
the character Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future.

Consignment shops and online auctions
have seen some of those shoes resell for thousands of dollars, while
others sit on shelves longer and sell for less.

A pair of original Air Jordans in good condition – bought by the most serious collectors – can sell today for $4,000 to $5,000.

Back
to the Future Mags, originally released to raise money for the Michael
J. Fox Foundation and Parkinson's research, go for much more.

Meanwhile, Mr Rivera recently sold a pair of LeBron James South Beach Nikes, which he bought for $170 in late 2010, for $900.

Net worth: Limited-edition Nike sneakers, wrapped in plastic for protection await the 'Sneakerheads', who buy and trade the shoes for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars

Net worth: Limited-edition Nike sneakers, wrapped in plastic for protection, await the 'Sneakerheads', who trade the shoes for hundreds and thousands of dollars

'People try to finance their (shoe)
habit,' says LaVelle V-DOT Sykes, who owns a Chicago shop called
Overtime, where he and his staff sell sneakers on consignment.

'They'll
say, “I'm going to rock one pair and sell two,”' he says, referring
to people who wear one pair and try to find buyers for the others.

'You see moms, pops, aunties, all kinds of people, across all colour lines.'

Often,
though, sneakerheads are young men in their teens, 20s and 30s, many of
whom now use the Internet to show off their 'kicks'.

And companies like Nike are using that instant, word-of-mouth communication to their benefit, marketing experts say.

'When
I started in this business back in the Sixties, there was no such thing
as a blogger,' says Michael Carberry, a former advertising executive
who is now a marketing professor at American University in Washington.

Now,
he says, bloggers are a key advertising component: 'They talk it up:
“Did you hear about the new Nike that's coming out You gotta be
there.”'

Forever young: Sean Rivera's obsession with sneakers started when he was a toddler and his parents bought him a pair of Air Jordans (pictured on his cell phone)

Forever young: Sean Rivera's obsession started when he was a toddler and his parents bought him a pair of Air Jordans (pictured on his cell phone)

Limiting the
supply – a tactic sometimes called 'artificial scarcity' – also fuels
the demand in an age when young people are bombarded with products and
looking for ways to stand out.

'It's harder and harder to make yourself different and distinct. Everybody has access to the same stuff,' says Gary Rudman, president of California-based GTR Consulting, which tracks the habits of young people.

'They're constantly trying to update the brand called “Me”.

'They do it with anything from clothes to electronic devices or even video game skills. For sneakerheads, it's all about showing off your shoes to gain credibility with your peers,' he says.

'For sneakerheads, it's all about showing off your shoes to gain credibility with your peers'

Dina Mayzlin, an associate professor of marketing at Yale University, refers to this dynamic as 'social signalling' – associating yourself with a hard-to-get brand to build status.

So companies are, in turn, limiting access to a product or service to create a buzz and reputation of coolness.

She and her colleagues have, for instance, studied Google and Spotify, an online music service – both of which have initially made some services available to consumers by invitation only.

'It's a bit of a puzzle – why would the company early on try to slow down the adoption of their product' she says.

She found that the goal for Google, with Google+, or Spotify was to eventually draw in even more members who wanted what the initial members had.

When you factor in what it costs to design and promote the limited edition shoes, Nike may not make as much money on them as it would if they were mass produced, says Mr Carberry.

But the publicity they generate is priceless.

Slam dunk: Michael Jordan plays for the Chicago Bulls in 1998, wearing his Air Jordans

Slam dunk: Michael Jordan plays for the Chicago Bulls in 1998, wearing his Nike Air Jordans – now worth some $5000

'The buzz is what works for them and it just enhances the aura of Nike,' he says – and, in turn, generates more overall shoe sales to those who might not be able to afford a limited-edition pair, but still want to attach themselves to the brand.

Because of the chaos it has created, some have questioned whether Nike has gone too far with its limited edition shoes and hyped releases.

A Nike spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the company is looking for ways to avoid the mayhem created by recent shoe releases. But in February, the company did issue a statement stressing the importance of 'consumer safety and security'.

To cut back on crowds, some stores already hand out a limited number of tickets to consumers before a shoe release. Without a ticket, you can't enter the store.

Mr Estrella, the blogger and YouTube sneakerhead, says there is little doubt that the recession is contributing to the havoc because more people are looking for ways to make a fast buck.

But he thinks most sneakerheads are in it for more than that.

'It's about fashion and sports,' he says. 'It's about friendship and having a common interest. For me, it's like I'm wearing art on my feet.'

It's much the same for the sneakerheads who lined up in Chicago, and who speak with pride about their extensive shoe collections.

Some talk with a bit of disdain about newer sneakerheads, whom they accuse of only being in it to try to make money.

But Mr Sykes, the consignment shop owner who is a longtime sneakerhead himself, doesn't.

'Americans are opportunists. This is the land of making something from nothing. And then people complain about it' he says.

'Would you rather that a kid resell shoes, or sell drugs I'd rather he stand in line and sell shoes.'