Every wall inside Young’s Sneaker City on West Girard Avenue is stocked with sneakers black and white and swirled with candy colors, all of them askew just so on display shelves, and next to the cash register is the Nike wall. Not that anyone wants to buy any of the 25 shoes on the Nike wall. All of them have been sitting there for at least a year, most of them longer, styles whose coolness has come and gone, some of them shrink-wrapped in cellophane, some of them leaving dust on the fingertips of a customer who happens to pick one up.
That those shelves will soon be empty is a fact that the store’s owner, Yong Lee, takes for granted. Among the dwindling number of independent sneaker-store owners in and near the city and around the country, he is not alone in his presumption. Since 2016, Nike has been pulling its products out of these retailers as part of its shift to a direct-to-consumer model, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has accelerated that process, killing off more of these small businesses, denying a salve to the already-wounded survivors.
It’s quite the juxtaposition of image and reality: Nike, the wokest of woke corporations, paying millions to LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick to brand itself as the sneaker of protesters and rebels and champions of the counterculture ... but turning its back on the very retailers — often urban-centered, often owned and frequented by people of color — that helped it build its empire. The company’s digital sales skyrocketed by 75% in the fourth quarter of the 2020 fiscal year, and its currency-neutral revenues from China have been growing by at least 10% for six consecutive years.
To Nike, most of its traditional stores and distributors — despite their value as longtime neighborhood institutions and cultivators of social capital — have become drags on its profit margin. They’re unnecessary, second class. So their proprietors now just wait for the phone calls or emails, if they haven’t received them already, that their accounts have been terminated, that the most popular sneakers on the market aren’t available to them anymore, that the titan of the industry is telling them they’re on their own.
“Ten years ago, I could have gotten everything I wanted,” Lee, 61, said. “Now they don’t give me anything my loyal customers want. If they sell only on their website, they don’t need me.”
That’s the pretext of Nike’s entire strategy, and the company doesn’t deign to acknowledge the costs. “In order to build more meaningful relationships with consumers,” a Nike spokesperson said in a phone interview, “we are doubling down on our approach with Nike Digital and our owned stores, as well as a smaller number of strategic partners who share our vision to create a consistent, connected and modern shopping experience.”
Under Armour and Adidas already have announced that they will use the same formula to try to keep up, and it would be easier to accept this trend as a natural result of the evolution of capitalism and technology if Nike weren’t so cold and hypocritical about it, if it didn’t peddle the value and integrity of “sacrificing everything” while forcing its current and former clients to do exactly that. It’s pulling out of some big-box retailers, too — DSW, Urban Outfitters, Shoe Show — but it’s the little stores, with so much more to lose, that will suffer the most. And already have.
Just look around. Bounce from North Philadelphia to the 4600 block of Frankford Avenue, where Joseph’s Sporting Goods is shuttered with a steel garage door, to stretches of Chestnut and South Streets, where the mom-and-pop shops that were once fixtures are long gone. Call Shoe Plus on Germantown Avenue; it’s “temporarily closed,” and no one’s there to stop the phone from ringing forever.
Talk to William Woo Chung, whose store, Real McCoy, had three locations — one at Broad and Olney, one near Temple, one in Camden — and relied on Nike for 70-80% of its sales. Chung closed those stores three years ago, after Nike shut down his account. Drive out to the suburbs and towns around the city, to The Run Around in Abington or Sneakin’ In in Bellmawr, stores whose owners are hoping they’ve diversified their merchandise enough to hang on.
Listen to them recall how, in the 1980s, when Nike was a young company desperate to gain a foothold in the market, its representatives would pull up to their stores, the trunks of their cars loaded with wholesale sneakers. Those stores became the epicenters of a shakeup in the country’s pop and consumer culture: Air Jordans, Air Maxes, a grassroots spreading of the Gospel of JUST DO IT. Listen to those owners now, the betrayal in their voices.
People who sought the freedom and self-determination and took on the risk that comes with starting a business ... people who want to try on sneakers before they buy them ... people who don’t have access to a computer or the Internet to one-click-shop — and there are more of them in Philadelphia than anyone might want to admit ... people who just want to support the small, familiar places that are around the corner or across the street … these stores exist for and because of them, and Nike, despite all its social justice signaling and preening, is telling those people that they don’t count.
“They live on perception, and politically, it makes a lot of sense,” said one city store owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still has a Nike account. “They control your livelihood, and they know it. We are in the trenches. Customers tell us what they want. When something gets some traction, Nike pulls it back and keeps it for themselves. When it comes down to taking care of the people who put you there, they cut you off.”
They haven’t cut Yong Lee off yet, but he presumes it’s only a matter of time before they do. Born in South Korea, he immigrated to Philadelphia with his family in 1974, grew up on Wyoming Avenue, went to Northeast High School, and spent two years studying engineering at Penn State before his father died suddenly. He returned home, never finishing his degree, and opened his store 35 years ago.
His customers, most of whom are Black, are loyal to him, and he to them. “They call me a legend,” he said. He runs them tabs, creates jobs. The clientele come in to browse and buy, or just to hang out, as if the store were a barbershop. When the protests and rioting last spring and summer jeopardized Lee’s business, several residents and customers stood outside his front door, guarding the store.
“During the looting, this store ain’t get touched,” one of those customers, Christian Smith, said, “out of respect for him.”
Before the pandemic struck, he would donate hundreds of pairs of sneakers to local schools and athletic associations each year. Seven plaques, acknowledging him for his generosity, hang in his storage area. There, up a treacherous wooden ladder to the cramped second floor, stand stacks of shoeboxes tall as towers, full of Nike sneakers that he’ll never sell. For every pair of Jordan 1s — or whatever the latest hot shoe happens to be — that he gets, Nike demands that he take 10 pairs of what one of his employees called “BS sneaks,” the kinds that will never entice his customers, the kinds that collect cobwebs and dust.
He’ll get by, probably. He does all right with other brands, which gives him some peace of mind. “Nike,” he said, “they come from China, Vietnam, cheap labor.” His twin sons, Patrick and Andrew, are 35 and plan to take over the store once he retires.
“I’m the Last [of the] Mohicans,” he said.
What’s the price of a bond so strong between a father and his sons, between a man and his community? It’s a question that Nike can’t be bothered to ask. Sometimes a click on a computer screen doesn’t just complete a connection. Sometimes it severs one, too. Soon enough, there will be another commercial, another Twitter trend, another urgent marketing message to strike a blow for equality by purchasing the right brand of sneakers. And soon enough, another storefront will go dark in another forgotten neighborhood, and we will wonder why.