It sounds almost absurd. Grown men lining up early on a Saturday morning at a shopping mall. They aren't looking for a sweet deal on a high-definition television or some other technological gizmo. They're here to spend hundreds of dollars on ... shoes.
That's right, it's not fashion-forward females looking for the latest Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo wares. It's males shelling out C-notes for Nike sneakers. These men don't "need" the shoes and probably will never wear them during athletic activity of any kind, but want them because they're hip, fashionable and collectible.
For shoe collectors (or "sneakerheads," as they're called) like William Lam, 33, of Gilbert, a Saturday morning stop at the Finish Line at Arizona Mills means securing limited-edition Nike shoes - like the Air Jordan Countdown Pack IV (not one but two retro Air Jordan shoes, with special packaging featuring the Chicago Bulls legend) he scored last month. Finish Line and several other shoe stores open at 8a.m., two hours earlier than usual, whenever a collectible shoe is released, usually on a Saturday. The early openings draw several collectors from across the Valley.
"I've been collecting seriously for about three years," Lam says. "But I started buying Air Jordans when I was in fifth grade because I love Michael Jordan."
Lam showed his love by picking up four of the Countdown packs - at $310 each. He planned on selling the extras on eBay, where he expected to sell them for about $400. But don't think Lam is just in it for the money. He does wear his shoes - he has about 40 pairs - at least a little bit.
"Most of them I wear at least once," he says. "Then I clean them and put them back on the shelf."
Fellow collector Israel Lopez, 32, of Phoenix, who picked up his Countdown pack at Shoeteria, also at Arizona Mills, that morning, has a similar outlook.
"I wear the shoes," he says of his 20 collectible pairs. "But not often."
The sneakerhead culture, which originated in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles, grew out of the hip-hop and basketball scenes and is slowly becoming more prevalent in the Valley. Nike and national shoe retailer Finish Line chose to launch their first (and thus far, only) Finish Line Ltd. concept store in Chandler last month.
The store focuses primarily on running shoes but also offers more stylish, casual Nikes adorned in the colors of local high schools. And last fall, Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson opened up High Point Shoes, a designer sneaker boutique in shopping center The Mix in downtown Scottsdale, across the street from Fashion Square.
"Probably about half of our customers are collectors," says Nick Pomroy, store manager.
The rest are more casual consumers simply interested in the colorful, unique shoes offered at the store, which specializes not only in well-known brands like Nike and Adidas, but also niche labels like Alife, Creative Recreation and Ice Cream (co-founded by Neptunes and N*E*R*D member Pharrell Williams), that generally aren't carried by the major shoe chains.
"People come in here and say, 'Sweet! We don't have to order our shoes online any more,' " Pomroy says.
And sneaker high fashion doesn't always means high price. Though High Point Shoes range up to $220 for a pair of Kobe Bryant-branded Nikes (no, the recent outcome of the NBA Finals won't drive that down), there's also lower-end Nikes and Adidas available for around $55, opening up sneaker collecting to a wider income bracket.
"We've got a diverse crowd here," Pomroy says of High Point's clientele. "A great range of age groups."
HOT TO TROT
Here's a look at the next few limited-edition releases from Nike:
Jordan Countdown Pack V (VII & XVI) Street date: Today How much: $310 for the two-pair pack
Air Jordan Force 3 Fusion (pictured) Street date: July 3 How much: $135
Jordan Countdown Pack VI (IV & XIX) Street date: July 19 How much: $310