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Why Are Shoe and Sneaker Prices So Expensive and Different?

Whether you are obsessed with sneakers or you have been really trying to understand the obsession of a friend or loved one paying an exorbitant price tag for a pair of shoes, it can be a hard thing for many people to understand.

Especially if you know a sneaker collector or someone who loves to invest in pricey Oxfords, you may have asked yourself on more than one occasion just what it is that sets apart shoes from sneakers and why the prices are different. Here’s the thing to know: while pricey sneakers may be indistinguishable from humdrum $60 shoes to some, there are actually pretty substantial differences.

Is there a difference between shoes and sneakers?

In short: absolutely. The most simple way to put this is to say that shoes are the more expensive option, and sneakers are less the expensive option. That said, as with most things, it’s not quite that simple.

If you’re thinking that this is antithetical to your idea of “sneake heads,” who collect the most expensive sneakers from different brands and collaborations, that’s because snagging a pair of sneakers from many of those launches is a hard thing to do. You know the ones, the Adidas Yeezy 450 sneakers that sold out 1 minute after launching, or coveted 2017 Air Jordan 1 from Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” collection. Of course, the popularity of these products has a lot a to do with the names behind them, but they also derive their high price tags from their scarcity.

Yeezy 750 Light Brown, differences between sneaker and shoe prices
The Yeezy 750s in Light Brown sold out in less than one minute.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Yeezy

While Kanye West initially released only 9,000 pairs of the Adidas Yeezy Boost 750 “Light Brown,” he has made a big deal of what’s come to be known as the “Yeezys-For-All” campaign, which touts the brand’s increased production. This is estimated to be around 40,000 pairs per drop, and it will inevitably impact the popularity that existed primarily on the resale market.

As for Virgil Abloh’s Off-White collaboration with Nike, the two brands had clearly planned on making the shoes more accessible, and had announced 50 new colorways of the Nike Dunk for the “Dear Summer” Collection. While the varying color options are not a huge surprise given that Abloh launched “The Ten” by debuting his take on 10 classic Nike silhouettes, Abloh’s untimely passing will certainly result in sneaker collectors clamoring to get their hands on one of his designs.

Sneaker vs. Shoe Production

Scarcity aside, other major components that dictate the differences in price points is the material and the production. While this may seem more obvious if you are comparing Oxfords for loafers, the same is true for sneaker brands.

Balenciaga WOMEN'S TRIPLE S SNEAKER IN BEIGE, difference between sneaker and shoe prices
While the production of the Triple S was moved from Italy to China due to the technology required to create the mid-sole, they are still handmade.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Balenciaga

Take Balenciaga shoes as an example. While they have cushioned mid-soles, which provides the comfort that someone might expect from a brand that touts their athletic sneakers like Nike, they are also hand-stitched, often from premium leather. This means that the construction of these shoes requires a shoe-making factory wherein people are working to stitch and turn the items together with their hands, which requires skill and technique. While Balenciaga is an Italian brand, its Triple S shoes, which cost $1,050, are actually manufactured in China because they need access to technology required to make the shoe’s mid-sole. That said, they still aren’t mass-produced in a sneaker factory, but are handmade in a shoe-making factory.

Converse All Star white sneakers, difference between sneaker and shoe prices
While the price is certainly reflective of the quality, it’s hard to beat a Converse sneaker paired with jeans.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Converse

By comparison, sneakers like Converse All-Stars are $60 and made using inexpensive canvas, rubber and lower-quality EVA foam. They are also vulcanized, which means that they essentially require gluing a rubber sole onto an upper, which is easily done using a machine. This process is responsible for creating most widely-distributed sneakers and is completed entirely by machines in factories.

When it comes to shoe designs that use popular performance materials like Gore-Tex, which is used to create most shoes that are billed as tough or outdoorsy, the materials themselves weren’t actually created by the brands. Many of the materials were created for other things entirely and licensed out by the brands once they saw their potential performance function. It’s also these performance materials that qualify the products as sneakers over shoes, as shoes are not made for comfort.

The Performance Factor

The differences between shoes and sneakers becomes apparent when you think about it in terms of what you would wear them with. Think about it, you have probably not looked at the footwear choice of someone wearing a nice suit and often said, “Nice sneakers.”

This is because sneakers are typically created with athletic performance in mind. This means that they feature performance fabrics in lieu of leathers, and EVA foam mid-soles for cushioning. These materials are all intended to help athletes — or even those who consider themselves active — perform better and more comfortably. This is why there are different types of sneakers based on the activity that a person is focusing on.

Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% 2, difference between sneaker and shoe prices
This Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% 2 contains a carbon-fiber plate that improves responsiveness for runners.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

Think of the Adidas Ultraboost. This shoe, which costs $190, features a thick sole and a heavily-cushioned heel. They are intended to support runners, especially long-distance runners who will be on their feet for extended periods of time. They are also made to feel spongey in order to provide an energy return from your strides. Finally, they are also super-lightweight and breathable so that your foot has less to carry and so that it can stay cool while doing it.

There is also the Nike Vaporfly, which costs $250. This shoe was designed with performance in mind so much so that the brand was almost too successful. The shoe was found to potentially enhance performance so much, thanks the sole’s responsive cushioning and carbon fiber plate, that it was nearly banned from being used professional races. While both of these running shoes are highly technical in terms of support, they are manufactured in high quantities by machines.

Salvatore Ferragamo Gancini Oxford, difference between shoe and sneaker prices
This shoe is made by hand using a 320 step process.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Salvatore Ferragamo

By comparison, the Salvatore Ferragamo Gancini Oxford, which costs $1,450, may feature a more straightforward design, but it takes hours to make. This shoe is handmade in Italy by expert cobblers. While it may look much more simple compared to some running-focused sneakers, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The brand notes that these shoes require 320 steps from the cobblers, which takes them several hours to complete. They feature double stitching, contrasting inserts and soft, supple calfskin leather that is both sturdy and flexible.

How to spot quality

Now that you know the difference between sneakers and shoes, there are some important ways to tell if a shoe is well-made or not.

Just as the Salvatore Ferragamo Gancini Oxford made it a point to note the shoe’s flexibility in its description, this factor is actually a good sign in regard to the quality of a shoe. The more flexible the leather or suede, the better. If it’s full-grain or top-grain pebbled leather, it will last much longer and become more comfortable over time. These types of leathers are also typically thicker, which helps the shoe maintain its shape and style. Speaking of leather, you can also give it a sniff to see if it truly smells like, well, leather. If it smells artificial or like glue, it’s a good sign that it isn’t very high quality.

The weight of the shoe is also a determining factor when it comes to quality. The more lightweight a shoe is, the more expensive the soles tend to be. You can also look around the outside of the sole to see if you can spot the stitching, which is also a sign that the shoe is well-made. Finally, take a look inside the shoe to see if it is lined with leather. This will guarantee that it is sturdy, durable and less likely to retain odors over time.

While quality can be a bit more difficult to spot in sneakers, check to make sure you can’t spot any glue around the sole. You should also check to make sure that it’s flexible, especially while you are walking (side note: remember to try them on before buying if you can).

Takeaways

It is worth noting that some people use the terms sneakers and shoes interchangeably, but shoe-makers and quality brands typically know the difference.

While you don’t always have to expect to pay upwards of $1,000 for quality shoes, it is good to keep in mind that price is typically a sign that the shoe was made by hand and that it was made using quality materials that will maintain their style and durability for years to come.

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