Zac leans into the pair of sneakers in his hands and takes a great big whiff—the sort of noisy inhale typically reserved for fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies and the heads of newborn babies. Zac is a sneaker authenticator at Stadium Goods, the New York-based sneaker-resale company, where people frequently buy and sell footwear for thousands of dollars. They are entrusting Zac’s nostrils to safeguard their investment. Today, he is eagerly hoovering the vapors from a pair of Nike x Supreme SB Dunks from 2002 that have been on a long and telling voyage—one that says a lot about the booming, and still-growing, sneaker resale industry.
The sniff, Zac says, is his favorite way to tell a legitimate shoe from a fake one. He guesses he’s personally checked over a million shoes by now—and because he smells each and every sneaker he’s looked at, that means he’s smelled over a million, too. Folks at the Stadium Goods consignment desk, which resembles a UPS store with its L-shaped counter separating customers from stacks of boxes, typically laugh, Zac says, but the joke’s on them—he’s never been fooled.
Smell is especially important when it comes to these Dunks, a shoe of the hypest order that, unlike the latest Jordan retro or Yeezy release, doesn’t regularly come through Stadium Goods. Zac doesn’t so much look for a specific scent as he does try and sniff out the noxious signs of a fraud: “This fume-y, fake glue smell,” he explains. Real shoes, he says, have a singular aroma—there is New Shoe smell the same way there is New Car smell. It’s syrupy and medicinal—a cure-all, maybe, for bad outfits.
The inspection merely starts with the smell test. Zac rotates the shoebox and inspects it for the smallest details. If the shoes are tightly crammed in the box, they’re likely fake; if Nike’s trademark orange is lighter than usual, they’re likely fake; if the zeroes listing out the shoe’s code look wonky, they’re likely fake; if the wrong text in the shoe’s description is bolded, they’re likely fake; if the wrapping paper inside the box rips too easily, they’re likely fake. From there, Zac goes further down the rabbit hole, to the shoes themselves, which take inspiration from the classic Air Jordan 3: the craggy “Elephant”-printed pattern should actually cut into the grey leather, the perforations on the white toebox should all line up to form a series of increasingly smaller “U” shapes, the eyelets should be spaced evenly. Zac has touched so many shoes he knows what the leather should feel like, and while the tongue on this Dunk is yellowing, it’s a natural yellow, not “like a piss-yellow,” he says, which would suggest fraud.
Zac can tell if a shoe is fake in less than 30 seconds. Speed is important, because roughly 600 shoes a day come before him and his small team of authenticators. Zac says that at one point, before the team expanded to around a half-dozen, he was authenticating around 200 pairs daily.
Stadium Goods is just one of several shoe resellers that have become multi-million dollar companies over the past few years, as a veritable sneaker boom has blossomed. As sneakers have grown exponentially more in-demand, a secondary market experts believe is worth anywhere from $300 million to $1 billion—driven by sneaker owners reselling to consumers willing to pay a premium—has bubbled up. Naturally, criminals have attempted to get rich by knocking valuable shoes off, making people like Zac essential. The thing that Stadium Goods believes separates it from its competitors is its ability to guarantee, without fail, a shoe’s legitimacy. Which means that Sneaker Authenticator is now a very real career. “Am I surprised [this is a job]?” asks Zac, who’s worked in sneaker retail for almost a decade. “No. Maybe because I'm just into shoes, I've always known how deep the culture was.”
The shoes in Zac’s hands right now tell a story—one about the cottage industry, built around facilitating the flow of sneakers, that is raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, but also about the way sneakers have transcended footwear and become something more like gold or oil—an investment worth sitting on until it peaks, maybe 17 years later. Tracing the path of a single pair of shoes through this massive, bizarre, and new economy, from sniff test to sale, tells us plenty about how we shop now—and even more about the future of an already massive industry.
Even before a young man named B.J. walked into Stadium Goods with his Nike x Supreme Dunks in December, the shoes were something of a powder keg. They represent the very first sneaker collaboration between Nike and Supreme. Lines formed outside the latter’s retail stores when these sneakers were first released in 2002—the first of a now-weekly tradition at Supreme. Seventeen years passed without someone taking a step in this particular pair: they bounced around among different resellers, kept in pristine, unworn (or “deadstock”) condition, before landing in the hands of one based in Japan.
While multiple platforms have emerged to professionalize the sneaker resale business, for years, it operated mostly on the margins: on web forums, and more recently social media. B.J., a US-based reseller attuned to those backchannels, discovered these particular Dunks on Instagram, on the page of that Japanese reseller. B.J., who works as a sneaker consultant and supplements his income by regularly reselling, sensed a steal, and paid $1,200 for the pair. He brought them to Stadium Goods and did his best to forget about them, assuming that shoes that expensive would take a long time to sell.
Today, after Zac clears the Dunks, they get logged into the system that spits back a suggested price. Stadium Goods is vague on how it lands on prices, but the company’s co-founder John McPheters says it has a lot to do with data around “velocity of sales”—meaning that if a given shoe sells quickly, future sales of the same model might be given higher suggested prices. Release days provide the most up-and-down, as frantic customers and sellers find meeting ground. B.J. has some agency here, too: while Stadium Good suggests the price, he’s free to set it himself. When pricing his Dunks, he looked at past prices paid for the same shoe, considered its rarity—”It’s such an exclusive piece, almost an art piece within sneakers,” he says—and landed on his number: $3,000. That might seem monstrous for a pair of sneakers, but B.J. would later feel he had set the bar too low.
Stadium Goods rarely says no to authentic sneakers, even if they aren’t SB Dunk-caliber. The store’s basement is a sort of sneakerhead heaven, filled with endless rows of shelving units stacked high with everything from rare Jordans to ho-hum Vans Pro Eras. Still, it’s only a fraction of what Stadium Goods holds. Most of the shoes live out in New Jersey—“the warehouse is the bulk of our inventory,” McPheters says.
And there is a lot of inventory. In that monthlong span, the shoes traveled approximately twenty yards—but went on a wild journey, one of an impossibly large number of shoes changing digital hands. Stadium Goods says it receives, either in its Manhattan store or New Jersey warehouse, where customers can mail shoes, roughly 2,200 pairs of Kanye West’s Yeezy 350s every day. That means Stadium Goods should receive 15,400 pairs of Yeezys a week, 61,600 a month, and 739,200 pairs a year. Yeezy represents a large chunk of the shoes on the secondary market. On a random day this year, the intake at Stadium Goods broke down as: 25% Jordan, 20% Nike, 20% Yeezy, 15% Adidas, with the remaining 20% filled out by some combination of Vans, Reeboks, New Balance, Asics, and others. Every time one of these sneakers sells, Stadium Goods gets a percentage of, say, the sale of every $300 “Sesame” Yeezy 350s. And unlike retailers, which make just a single sale, many of these shoes ping-pong back and forth through the system multiple times before reaching a person who actually wants to wear the shoes rather than make a quick buck off them.
This is key to what Stadium Goods does. Before launching the company in 2015, McPheters worked at Flight Club, an early entrant into the resale game. There, he saw a gap in the market in terms of how sneakers on the secondary market were treated. From the start, McPheters says, Stadium Goods’s mission has been to “clean up the aftermarket and present it [with] a premium luxury aesthetic,” he says.
Part of Stadium Goods’s pitch is that, unlike most companies operating in the secondary market, it holds stock in that warehouse, so it can send sneakers out immediately after a customer clicks purchase. 20 additional authenticators work out in the warehouse to make it a one-stop shop. That quality helped entice the e-commerce giant Farfetch, which acquired the company for $250 million in December. Stadium Goods’ customers, and by extension Fafetch’s, expect even rare sneakers bought on the secondary market to arrive via two-day shipping just like their laundry detergent—or, more specifically, a regular, brand-new pair of sneakers.
Stadium Goods is now one of four companies making a concerted play for king in an exploding secondary sneaker market. Last year, Grailed brought in $15 million. Early this year, Goat received $100 million from Foot Locker. This summer, StockX collected a $110 million investment that pushed its valuation over $1 billion. The numbers are astronomical, yet McPheters believes we are still in the early days of sneaker reselling. “There's a ton of juice left in the orange,” he says.
Out of all the options, B.J. prefers Stadium Goods because he feels like he’s “not just a supplier.” Companies like Stadium Goods are currently engaged in battle over B.J.s: the high-volume sellers who bring plenty of shoes to resellers. “These companies tend to have winner-take-most, winner-take-all dynamics,” Roger Lee, a general partner at Battery Ventures, told me in September of last year after leading a $44 million investment in Stadium Goods competitor StockX. Whichever company can sort out the preferences of top resellers might be that winner Lee prophesied.
Here’s how you satisfy a highest-end seller: When B.J. brought his SB Dunks into Stadium Goods, they were clipped with the company’s security tagging before being whisked away to their new home. Stadium Goods’ physical space is large for Manhattan, the walls lined with hundreds of shoes shrink-wrapped and stored on shelves. Towards the back is where Stadium Goods keeps its “trophy case,” a glass trophy case for only the most gawkable of grails, which will serve as home for B.J.’s Dunks until they leave. B.J.’s shoes will rest there alongside other certified jawns, like a pair of navy-blue Derek Jeter Jordan 11s, one of a rumored five pairs in existence. (They were priced at Stadium Goods for $50,000.) Other items aren’t sneakers, strictly speaking, but carry the same impressive resale value. Another shelf holds a Supreme crowbar, Supreme x Fox bike hand grips, a Supreme coffin keychain, and a small metal cherry-red Supreme box. Nearby is the entire collection of Virgil Abloh x Nike sneakers, otherwise known as the Fuccboi Royal Flush.
The glass chest is a good way to protect the store’s most valuable goods, and also to serve as a showcase for customers who don’t know what they want beyond the fact that they want the absolute-best shit. Zac recalls a customer who came in, asked for the most exclusive thing in the store, and purchased a pair of Drake’s then-unreleased Jordans, paying $6,000 and wearing them out of the store. (He chucked the box on his way out—a sneakerhead no-no.)
That B.J.’s SB Dunks make it to this all-important case ensures that they get in front of the most—and highest-spending—customers. Other potential buyers might look online, where the experience resembles any other retailer's. Shoes are guaranteed to be unworn and practically any size you want is available—only the prices are drastically different. On the seller’s side, during the ensuing weeks, B.J. receives weekly reports on the shoes he has on the market. A spreadsheet listing out every one of the 50 to 60 shoes he’s listed with Stadium Goods arrives in his inbox—”Like a stock report, almost,” he says—along with suggestions to modify prices based on sales data from Stadium Goods.
A little less than a month after listing his Dunks, B.J. gets the news: his sneakers have found a home. Someone has pulled the trigger for the whole $3,000. (The buyer didn’t respond to requests for comment.) After Stadium Goods takes its 20 percent cut, subtracting the $1,200 he initially paid, B.J. ends up clearing close to $1,500.
The shoes will be spirited out of Stadium Goods’ store and into their new home within two business days. There, they might sit on a shelf like a trophy. They might be (gasp!) worn outside. Or they might be flipped yet again, to a new highest bidder, their new owner convinced there’s still a higher margin to be made. If that seller uses Stadium Goods for their sale, that means another cool 20 percent for the company.
For his part, B.J. considers the process a learning experience, not a pure victory: “The fact that it sold within a month told me, ‘Okay, next time I can price it a little higher.’”
I ask him what he’ll do with the money. His answer will surely be music to McPheters’ ears. “It will probably go back into buying more shoes,” B.J. says. “And seeing how else I can make another $1,500 bucks.”
Originally Appeared on GQ