Cool Concepts: What Makes Sneaker Collabs Click

When Cambridge, Mass.-based Concepts was planning its much-anticipated New York debut, the retailer realized a traditional store wasn’t the way to go.

Instead, it decided to create an exhibition space dedicated to its latest collaborations and evoke a sense of discovery. For the inaugural campaign, Concepts teamed up with New Balance to introduce a pink champagne-inspired take on the brand’s 997 Sneaker called 997 Rose, which is made in the U.S.

The entire boutique, which opened last weekend, is dedicated to the project. “New Balance is in our backyard [in Boston], and it made a lot of sense for us to collaborate and do something together in New York. This is the beginning of doing business in a different way,” said Tarek Hassan, co-owner of Concepts.

The retailer, which also plans to work with other partners, will change its layout frequently. In fact, next week it will unveil a second project with New Balance.

“It’s not necessarily about selling product,” Concepts manager Deon Point said. “It gives us a platform to articulate our vision and bring our brand to reality.”

Although the art of the footwear collaboration is nothing new, retailers are finding creative ways to use these partnerships to increase the visibility of their storefronts and put a unique spin on a limited run of sneakers.

“At the end of the day, it’s something where we can bring to life and market ideas we’ve already discussed internally,” said Mike Packer, owner of Packer Shoes in Teaneck, N.J.

His store, which has partnered with the likes of Reebok, Saucony and Asics over the past few years, launched a line with Adidas at the end of October.

Not only are sneaker collaborations an opportunity for the boutique to flex its creative muscles, but they’re also a way to excite the store’s consumer base in the local area. Release days for such offerings are usually met with lineups around the block and instant sell-through, Packer said.

“It’s a good feeling to take a certain amount of shoes and sell them in a half-hour,” he added, though declining to mention exact profit margins from these campaigns.

Although working on these quick-hit collections also drive excitement on the e-commerce side, the priority is to galvanize the in-store experience. “You want to create something in-store for the people who’ve been supporting you for a long time,” Packer said. “[That kind of discovery] at retail in this day and age has gone away to a certain extent.”

In the case of his latest Adidas initiative, the launch was celebrated with a family-and-friends charity walk in the store’s hometown, which also marked the shop’s 10th anniversary. Proceeds from the co-branded sneaker benefited the Wounded Warrior charity, as well as the recovery fund for Adidas brand manager Bradley Carbone, who was severely injured in a snowboarding accident.

Chase Ceparano, co-owner of Rise in Huntington, N.Y., said collaborations have been a gateway to getting publicity on the sneaker websites that his target consumers visit so often. The upstart store, which has been open for less than a year, has already completed two sneaker campaigns with Fila and Saucony.

Partnering with big sneaker names has also been a way for the store to both branch out into other product categories and support its own in-house Rise private label of apparel. “As a new store, these projects definitely help get our name out there,” he said.

Still Ceparano admitted that cool tie-ups don’t necessarily result in bigger sales.

“The truth is you don’t make major profit margins or net on something like this,”

Ceparano said, declining to provide exact figures. “It isn’t gigantic, but more importantly they’re a chance to communicate directly with your customer.”

Brands are also seeing the value in using these initiatives to reach new audiences.

For example, they are a key part of Brooks’ strategy for its Heritage line first unveiled this past spring. Its first such sneaker endeavor, the Brooks Chariot with Concepts, hit the scene in September and is one of several similar efforts that the brand has lined up going into 2015.

Shane Downey, Brooks’ senior heritage business manager, said that though the brand is putting big stock in these campaigns to help build the Heritage line, it isn’t relying on such ventures too heavily. “You have to have a strong core business to support them, and you don’t want to be a brand solely reliant on collaboration projects,” he said.

Louis Colon, Fila’s director of heritage and lifestyle product, said collaborations are important for brand-building, but you have to work with the right retail partners. The label’s criteria for joining forces with stores is that they have an established following, in addition to some type of affinity for or relationship with Fila.

“It helps us tell stories because there’s an emotional connection to those collaborators,” Colon said, adding that the group has tripled its number of joint-design efforts in less than two years.

Fila has also expanded its range of co-branded products outside the retail arena. Partnering with Nickelodeon, the brand released a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” sneaker this past summer to coincide with the release of the film. “We know that retailers are focusing on the consumer and they’re the ones who give credibility to the products,” Colon said. “Retailers are important, but it’s also influencers, celebrities and other brands. We keep our ears open and look for those opportunities.”

Of course, executing on these programs is not a perfect science. Unanticipated issues can arise, which can stall any well-planned launch. Consider how Rise’s sneaker undertaking with Saucony, which was originally scheduled for Halloween, was pushed to this month due to a customs issue that impacted deliveries.

There’s also the push and pull of working with a brand, where product may not turn out as a storeowner may have expected. “From a retail standpoint, you want these projects to make sense for the season when you calendar these things out,” Packer said. “But a lot of things come into the mix. Because you want them to be the way you envision it, you may have to push it back a season or two. Is that frustrating? Sure.”

Finally, the same sneaker sites that help build hype around a co-branded style at the consumer level can also be a campaign’s downfall, said Burn Rubber co-owner Rick Williams in Royal Oak, Mich. “Sometimes a picture of your shoe leaks early,” Williams said. “The attention span of our market is so short that you might mess around and then have the project fall through because people saw it before they were supposed to.”

Still, demand for these special-edition sneakers is rising, and it’s being additionally driven by consumers reselling them on the secondary market.

Josh Luber, founder of the site Campless, monitors the value and volume of the types of sneakers being re-sold on eBay. (For more on Luber, see page 24.) Of the 1,165 styles on eBay that Campless tracks, 206 are retail collaborations, with those sales accounting for $18.7 million on the resale market in the past year.

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content