“Looks like you got them from the shoe man!”

To the sneaker lover, these were the words that would fill you with dread somewhere around the early aughts. The “shoe man,” much like the “DVD man,” was the gentleman on the block who had Nikes for much less than you’d find them at the local sneaker shop, and for good reason: they were fake. The shoe man had garbage bags full of Jordans where the Jumpman logo was upside down, or Air Force 1s that said “Aire” on the sole, all of them in colorways that had never been released by the brand.

The shoe man has mostly been relegated to obscurity now, but the threat of fake sneakers has grown into a regular cottage industry. Known as “reps” in the community, these are sneakers meant to look identical to the most popular shoes that are released and often resold on platforms like “StockX” or “Goat” for 2 to 3 times the retail price to collectors and fashionistas. They’re usually assembled and sold out of China, where identical materials are procured from the same factories manufacturing the authentic goods in the black market. To the untrained eye, they’re impossible to spot.

Why it Matters

The threat of counterfeits has led to a divorce between two of the biggest companies in the world. Nike has pulled its partnership with Amazon, citing an inability to control the “third-party marketplace” on the platform where individual sellers were pushing counterfeit goods to shoppers and, in some cases, actually getting better positioning in searches on the platform.

On its face, this appears to be a piece of leverage by Nike: if Amazon can’t better control  it, then they won’t get Nike’s cooperation. The problem with this logic is that it presumes that consumers care whether they’re getting the real thing or a fake. According to CivicScience data, that might not be the case for everyone.

In fact, the “very likely” Nike sneaker buyer is significantly more likely to say they “knowingly purchase counterfeit goods.” One in five of them do so, with another 17% doing so unknowingly. In other words, a pretty good chunk of Nike’s target market don’t really care whether they buy the fake stuff, as long as it has the Nike branding on it and nobody can tell the difference.

This is significantly lower than the Adidas buyer, where only 13% of favorable Adidas consumers say that they knowingly purchase counterfeit goods, which makes sense: Adidas threatened Nike’s hold on the “high heat” sneaker (i.e. shoes people line up for and resell) a few years ago, but that market has all but collapsed for every non-Kanye West release they put out. 

Nobody is buying fake Adidas because there’s no need to have fake Adidas (When was the last time  Ultraboost sold out at local boutiques?). But Nike still puts out the shoes people lose a night of sleep to buy, and will sell out in minutes at major retailers. And, as counterfeits get increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing, their “high heat” business will continue to be at risk.

Furthering the belief that this isn’t happening to people who don’t know any better: the most fashion conscious among us are the ones most likely to knowingly buy fakes. Self-described “fashion leaders” are the most likely group, with “fashion innovators” slightly behind (but still significantly higher than the general population). The innovators may take more pride in buying the authentic product, but 1 in 4 of them are still passing off fakes. 

With that in mind, it’s understandable why Nike would pull out of an Amazon relationship in an effort to try and convince the retail giant to do a better job policing the fakes that are running through their third-party marketplace. The only problem is that the people buying them may already know they’re buying fakes – and they’re fine with it.