Sneaker Madness: Israelis Profit From the Footwear Obsession

Reselling limited-edition athletic shoes can spell big money for the mostly young people in the business

Liat Levi
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Ido Ben-Abu, 24, a partner in Tha Switch on Tel Aviv’s fashionable Sheinkin Street.
Ido Ben-Abu, 24, a partner in Tha Switch on Tel Aviv’s fashionable Sheinkin Street.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Liat Levi

In July 2019, Alon Amit, then 15 years old, waited outside the TLV mall in Tel Aviv for two full days and nights. He and his friends slept at the entrance to be among the first 20 customers in the Adidas store to buy a new model just launched by the German company – Yeezy sneakers. The shoes were a joint venture between Adidas and rapper-entrepreneur Kanye West.

Fifty people waited in the street to storm inside and buy a pair for 1,000 shekels ($310). “This is a shoe that’s all shiny, and we were all really excited about it,” says Amit, who managed in spite of the obstacles to buy a pair. The moment he left the store, somebody offered to buy them from him. He refused, went home and slept for around 20 hours.

When he woke up, he turned his attention to the real reason he went to all that effort. He advertised the sneakers on a WhatsApp group he belonged to, and within a few days he had sold them for 2,500 shekels. The buyer was a 30-year-old man who, a few weeks later, resold the shoes for 4,000 shekels on an overseas website.

Amit is essentially a shoe salesman, or perhaps more accurately a sneaker scalper: In the year and a half he has spent in the business, he has bought and sold 150 pairs of shoes. He also has a private collection of 40 pairs. When he gets tired of one pair of shoes, he simply sells them – sometimes for more money than he paid for it, even though he’s worn them.

“I like dressing stylishly,” he explains. “So, I started going to launches, buying products and advertising what I’d gotten on Facebook or WhatsApp in groups about buying and selling shoes and clothing. Anyone who’s interested in what I have to sell sends me a private message.”

Amit didn’t understand much about the shoe business when he started, but he learned by watching YouTube videos. Today, he says, he can earn anywhere from 200 shekels to thousands of shekels on every pair he sells.

The quickest profit he ever turned was on a pair of black Air Jordan 5 sneakers, which he was among the first to buy thanks to winning a lottery on Nike’s official website. He paid 850 shekels, and 10 minutes later, had already sold them for 2,400 shekels. The rarest shoes he ever bought cost him $2,500. But he kept that pair for himself.

Amit is part of a community of fanatic sneaker collectors known internationally as sneakerheads. They are deeply invested in athletic shoes, well-informed about hundreds of different models and series made over the years, and the history of their design. They keep close tabs on collaborations and hot trends in the field. Its members fight among themselves over rare makes and are constantly chasing the next hot sneaker.

In Israel, Amit is also one of dozens of teenagers who make money off this expensive hobby by reselling limited editions, mainly Nike and Adidas.

Shoe collectionCredit: Eyal Toueg

There was once a time when interest in buying sneakers for anything other than putting them on your feet was confined to a small group of NBA fans and aficionados of street culture – hip-hop fans, graffiti artists and skate boarders. Today the popularity of TikTok and collaborations between designers and artists with shoemakers has turned limited-edition footwear into a fashion trend.

“Limited-edition sport shoes were something for people with money – people who could buy a shoe for 1,800 shekels,” says Ido Ben-Abu, 24, a partner in Tha Switch on Tel Aviv’s fashionable Sheinkin Street, which specialize in street fashion. “About four years ago, there were just a few people in the business,” Ben-Abu adds. “Today, everyone is coming in and wants shoes at prices like that. A lot of young people began to figure out the resale business and are looking for special-edition shows.”

It seems that the inflection point in Israel, when limited-edition sports shoes went from being a niche to a trend, was with the relaunch of the Nike Air Max 1. An iconic product, it had been introduced 32 years before and featured the first sneaker with air cushioning visible through a clear plastic bubble. Its artistry was such that it was displayed at Paris’ Pompidou Center. The March 2017 relaunch was celebrated with a special edition called Nike Air Max 1 Master that integrated the design features of the shoes’ most popular versions.

“That was the first time that people in Israel were really talking about shoes,” recalled Ran Fernandez, a 33-year-old graphic designer and a snake aficionado. “People were gathering in stores specializing in street fashion and asking how they can get that shoe, sniffing around about who had seen it and what they had heard. Suddenly a shoe had increased value. It wasn’t just a sneaker but a limited-edition cultural product.”

That value has grown over time. Beyond the limited production run, companies like Nike and Adidas carefully select which stores can sell the shoes directly from the manufacturers, which only enhance the exclusivity factor and inflate the price further. Factors such as the shop’s reputation, its size and the other brands it carries decide who are the chosen few. They’re known as Tier 0 stores. After a pair is sold, the price goes up as they change hands in the after-market. Even retailers will buy from other retailers.

About a year ago, Fernandez tried to leave the snake world and cut off all his relevant social media accounts, but it didn’t work. “It’s like any other addiction – it gives you an adrenaline that’s hard to explain,” he says. “I have 30 pairs of shoes, all of them more than 1,000 (shekels). It’s a cycle because the minute you begin buying, you so don’t want to ruin the pair you just bought that you buy another so you don’t have to use the first one so much. As I see it, it’s really an investment like buying stock. If you don’t do anything with your money, you’re wasting it. With shoes, the prices are always going up.”

Several websites have emerged in recent years as unofficial regulators of the business. The leading one is StockX of the United States, which serves as a kind of online market for small traders. Each sneaker model has its own page with a history of maximum and minimum prices for specific models and sizes, how much the premium is over the suggested retail price and how many pairs have been sold over the site. StockX not only sets price benchmarks, but it operates a logistics center where sneakers sold through the site are sent for authentication.

Celebrities and the fashion industry have caught on to the sneaker craze. Last June, the French haute couture house Dior unveiled its own branded sneakers called Air Jordan 1. Sold by Nike, they cost $2,000 a pair. A month later, a pair was sold on StockX for a record $13,000. Today, the market price is $9,000, 350% more than the official retail price.

Yeezy is another popular make, although a lot less expensive. Developed by Adidas and Kanye West and called the Boost 750, the first of what so far numbers nine versions, it was launched in February 2015 and sold for $350. Its limited production run of 9,000 pairs sold out in 10 minutes. To level the buyers’ playing field, Adidas developed an app that lets them register and pick up their shoes at their nearest retailer. Still, a year later Boost 750 was selling on StockX for $4,000. Today, a pair fetches a mere $1,500.

Igal Chariski, 44, is a big buyer of sneakers to wear, not to trade. How many pairs he has bought over his lifetime? “Too many,” he answers. “No one really needs that many shoes. But it gives a certain sense of satisfaction when you get the pair that you want.” Despite his love of sneakers, Chariski only joined the sneakerhead community recently after the coronavirus pandemic closed the stores and the only way to buy was online. “The community itself attracts me,” he says. “All of us have something in common and in these times of the coronavirus there are few chances to see people. People are looking for connections like these.”

Launches of new models are these days done online, and if a model is very popular, it can sell out very quickly. To whet that kind of demand, the hype around a new model begins months before it goes on the market. Makers announce a planned launch, and aficionados share pirated pictures of the model long before it has reached the store.

If you create enough hype, young people will storm the shops, stand for hours on line and try to buy as many pairs as they can,” explains Chariski. “It’s just like an initial public offering on the stock market. Older people tend to be collectors and less involved in the business side. Kids today are in it for the money, buying and selling all the time, like trading cards of Pogs.”

Ben-Abu dismissed them as amateurs who don’t really understand the world of sneakers and simply follow trends. They are destroying the “purity of the market,” as he sees it. There’s a term for that type of sneakerhead – “hypebeasts,” those who love the buzz more than the product. All he is willing to concede in their favor is that they keep the market frothy.

In Israel, there are several Facebook pages run by sneakerheads. Each of them count several thousand members who buy and sell shoes, and share information and experiences. Conversations are punctuated with the sneaker world’s international jargon – for example, the launch of a new show is called a “drop.” “Dead stock” used to refer to models that are no longer being made, but today refers to a pair of shoes that have never been worn, even for measurement. The Israeli sneaker world, especially for the youngest sneakerheads, is influenced by trends in the U.S. and Europe, exposure on TikTok and the marketing campaigns of the big makers.

“TikTok has caused an explosion,” says Gal Mitrani of Haifa. “It’s a time-consuming platform, but it has a lot of celebrities and dancers who greatly influence the younger generation. Take Stephane [Legar, an Israeli hip-hop artist], he’s a real fan of sneakers and created a lot of awareness of the field. Nike’s Air Jordan 1 had a huge influence on hip-hop culture. A lot of 13- to 16-year-olds saw the shoe there for the first time, got excited and started buying.”

Mitrani has been in the business for a decade even though he’s just 24. A student, he says he earns $2,500 a month doing resale on the side. He bought his first sneakers after seeing the video of the song “23” by Miley Cyrus, which was dedicated to Michael Jordan.

“It showed the Jordan 9 series and I asked a friend to bring me a pair from the U.S. and paid him $200.” After several weeks, Mitrani saw on eBay that he could sell them for $400 and couldn’t resist the temptation. Till this day he is sorry that he succumbed. A new model of the shoe will be coming out in a few months, and an eight-year-old version of it today is worth $650. “I sold it almost a decade ago and now, at 24, I’m buying it again,” he says.

Mitrani says he’s not in it just for the money. He only buys his own size, just in case he falls in love with a pair and decides to keep them. But business is business, too: In the last year, he’s bought a lot of women’s shoes. “I saw that no one was paying attention to women’s sizes.” They began to, when Joe Biden’s granddaughter, Maisy Biden, created a frenzy during the inauguration ceremony last month when she was seen wearing Air Jordan 1 COJP Midnight Navy sneakers at the Capitol, later changing into a similar pair of high tops that she wore with a pink ruffled dress later that night.

Doing business from Israel is trickier because local prices are high, he explains. On WhatsApp and other social media, he and other resellers discuss market conditions and price forecasts. “What we do is try and figure how much the price of a shoe to an end-user will rise on StockX, because above and beyond the show there’s the $30 shipping cost to Israel. There’s also the value-added tax you need to pay and other fees the shipping companies charge that add up to tens of shekels and are known as ‘computer fees.’ That’s a pricing calculation we all make, even if we bought the shoe locally.”

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