‘Underground’ Sneaker Sales Are Big Business in DC

Two 17-year-old boys from Virginia say they've sold $40,000 worth of sneakers online in the past year

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Anisa Holmes

A high school junior from Northern Virginia laid his newest pairs of sneakers on his friend’s balcony and snapped photos of the shoes with his iPhone. The natural light helps show off the shoes' colors and curves, 17-year-old Jonathan Calderon said.

He edited the photos of the sneakers and posted them to Instagram for his more than 3,600 followers to admire. Within hours, he and his 17-year-old business partner Mustafa Al-Gburi had several bids.

Sneakers are big business for Calderon and Al-Gburi. They say they've raked in $40,000 in sales in the past year and $15,000 in profit, all through sales on their Instagram account @dmv.resellers.

"I pay for everything myself. I bought two cars at a profit straight from shoe reselling. I pay for all my bills and buy my own clothes," Calderon said.

Jonathan Calderon

News4 reported about a brick-and-mortar sneaker resale store that D.C. ordered to shut down after scores of complaints by sellers.

Here's a look at how the underground sneaker resale business — worth an estimated $2 billion — works in our area on Instagram.

What Sells and Why

The teens behind @dmv.resellers buy, sell and trade some of the most coveted items in sneakers and streetwear. Some of their customers wear the shoes and others hang on to them to try to resell them themselves.

Sneaker Culture Facts

Here are a few sneakers that have made their mark on the athletic footwear industry.

Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBC Washington

Instagram reseller Sam Farid, who has sold hundreds of pairs of shoes on his account @heatsneakersva, compared the sneaker market to the demand for antique furniture.

"It's almost underground in a way," said Farid, a 31-year-old mixed martial arts coach and fighter from Annandale. "People don't necessarily have storefronts or anything like that. People are selling with cash, they're meeting up and there's no official regulations for it."

Sneakers made in limited quantities are in particularly high demand. For example, rapper Travis Scott collaborated with Nike to create limited-edition Air Jordan 1s. They retailed for $175 but now can run for more than $2,000 per pair.

Rapper Kanye West's sneakers made with Adidas, called Yeezys, also are in demand. The Yeezy Boost 350s retailed at $200 but can resell for four figures. And their price is expected to rise.

"General releases won’t rise up over time. You have to look for something that’s very limited in quantity," Calderon said. "Ten thousand pairs of Yeezys being sent out to the U.S. will definitely go up over time."

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Calderon said his most profitable sneaker sale since he started reselling shoes at age 12 was for Air Jordan 1 x Off-White UNC. He said he bought a pair for $800 from another reseller and sold them for $1,500. The powder blue sneakers retailed for just $190.

Sneakers in popular sizes, like men’s 8.5 and 9.5, also tend to be more valuable.

Sneaker collecting is "a way of forming a community with other like-minded people," said Yale School of Management marketing professor George Newman. He studies consumer behavior and the value people place in products.

"One way we tell others about who we are is through the products we own and choose to buy," he said.

Collecting items often signals status, Newman said. He drew a comparison to vinyl record collectors, and early pressings of The Beatles' "White Album," some of which can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

"It becomes a mark of status,” he said. "Not only are you a Beatles fan and a vinyl collector, but you’re willing to pay something extra to get something that other people are coveting and people within the community have agreed is important and valuable."

How Sneaker Resales Work

Once the sneaker resellers get a bid they like, they either ship the shoes or arrange to meet up.

Farid said he often meets buyers at 7-Elevens, malls and police station parking lots. He said he doesn't want buyers to go to his house, just in case they would rob him.

He and other sellers accept a mix of cash as well as payments through PayPal, Venmo and other services.

Instagram allows product sales and urges business owners to buy targeted ads on the platform.

The Size of the Resale Market

The U.S. sneaker and streetwear resale market is worth an estimated $2 billion, according to a report released this spring by the financial services company Cowen Inc. They expect it to hit at least $6 billion by 2025.

Major investors have begun to take notice of the growing secondary marketplace for sneakers. Foot Locker announced a $100 million investment earlier this year in GOAT Group, a marketplace for authentic sneakers. CEO Richard Johnson said in a statement that the company sought to "bring sneaker and youth culture to people around the world."

Last year, the online marketplace and sneaker reseller StockX secured $44 million in funding from investors including GV (formerly Google Ventures), DJ Steve Aoki and supermodel and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss. The company officially reached $1 billion in valuation in June.  

Both GOAT and StockX, which primarily operate in the U.S., are expected to expand globally.

How DC Is Different

D.C. has a robust and growing sneaker resale market, Farid, the 31-year-old reseller from Annandale, said.

"When it comes to sneaker enthusiasts, we’re still kind of on the come up," he said.

D.C.-area sneakerheads turn to Instagram because there are fewer brick-and-mortar stores in the area for high-end sneakers. In New York, for example, fans line up outside the Manhattan stores Flight Club and Stadium Goods. Los Angeles and New York even get region-exclusive sneaker releases that D.C. misses out on.

Who the Resellers Are

Like Calderon and Al-Gburi, other Instagram sneaker resellers say they make great profits off their deals. Many are teens. Others are adults with full-time jobs, selling sneakers on the side. While the resellers in the D.C. area tend to be young men, their customers include women and girls.

Adrien Henao, a 19-year-old reseller from Alexandria, Virginia, said he raked in $20,000 in sales in September on his account @worldwidesneakers

He said he fell in love with sneakers in his senior year of high school.

"At a certain point, I was like, 'I want to start buying that stuff,'" he said.

Adrien Henao

Originally, Henao’s plan was to wear a single pair of shoes for a bit, resell them and use the money to buy another pair. But then he saw how much money he could make and turned reselling into a bigger business.

Farid said he fell for selling sneakers after he bought a $180 pair of Nike Foamposites when he was in the ninth grade. He said he loved the styles and loved making money through resales too.

"I’ve always been into fashion, and growing up in an urban area, it’s a big deal," he said. "In school, you’re always looking to see what people have on their feet, what new, exclusive sneakers they’re wearing."

Since Farid started selling sneakers when he was 12, he has held several jobs, including at Best Buy, Subway and a pharmacy. But he said he has saved more money in the past year from selling sneakers than he did from all of those jobs combined. 

How to Avoid Fakes and Scams

Like any expensive and exclusive good, the sneaker marketplace is riddled with counterfeits and fakes.

"I see a lot of scamming happening on a daily basis," Farid said.

Earlier this month, U.S. customs officials seized more than $2 million worth of fake Nike sneakers from a Los Angeles seaport.

On Instagram, many buyers try to avoid online scammers by checking what sellers call a reference post. The post is where customers can leave reviews, similar to the reviews section on a retail website.

Calderon, one of the 17-year-old sellers, asks his customers to comment on his account's reference post. He encourages potential buyers to message his customers to confirm that they were satisfied.

Henao, the 19-year-old reseller from Alexandria, does the same.

"If we have ever done business before please leave a review!" his reference page says.

In response, there are more than 80 comments from Instagram users. "100% legit" and "trustworthy," some say.

What's Next

The resellers said they expect to see continued interest in high-end sneakers.

Farid wondered if Instagram eventually would create regulations to try to stop scammers. In the meantime, he said he'll keep selling.

Calderon is headed to college in fall 2021. He said he plans to keep selling sneakers for as long as he can.

"It's like a job now," he said.

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