Drapers explores how technology is revolutionising the product drop model.
Long queues of young shoppers decked out in the very latest streetwear styles are now a regular occurrence on the streets of London’s Soho. Cult labels Supreme and Palace Skateboards, which both have stores in the area, draw large crowds who wait in feverish anticipation for the arrival of new products, referred to as “drops”. These carefully controlled, limited runs of new styles are unveiled in store and online at the same time each week, creating frenzied interest among eager customers. While other brands and retailers have chosen to release product in this way, US skate brand Supreme has harnessed the power of drops on a global scale, bringing the model to the fashion industry’s attention.
“As humans, we all want that thing that is unique and special,” Swave Szymczyk, global director digital and retail marketing at Adidas Originals, which uses to drops to sell its sneakers, tells Drapers. “Drops are a way for companies and brands to offer that really special and unique piece, of which there might only be a couple of hundred, to customers.”
As a brand, it is our responsibility to ensure that any shoes we’re releasing are getting into the hands of the people who really are fans
Swave Szymczyk, global director digital and retail marketing at Adidas Originals
Ridwane Ettoubi, founder of London sneaker consignment store Presented By, which sells cult sneakers and streetwear items from brands such as Supreme, Nike and Adidas, agrees: “We constantly hear certain styles referred to as [holy] ‘grails’ or ‘myths’ [because they are so rare]. The sneaker community has grown significantly over the past couple of years and so has the awareness of drops. Consumers are constantly checking apps and websites for release dates for hyped items, and brands have used the model to increase their following and cement their cult status.”
But as the drop model has become more sophisticated, a darker side has emerged. The battle for the most sought-after products is moving away from the scrum on Soho’s streets and increasingly moving online. A thriving resale market, in which the most covetable styles change hands for many times their original retail value, has prompted brands and shoppers to use technology in a bid to stay ahead.
Dedicated resellers are employing automated online bots, which speed up the check-out process by memorising customer’s preferences and card details, to allow them to get scarce items first. Products are then resold on resale sites, or, increasingly, on social media.
To try to level the playing field, brands are fighting back with technology to beat the bots and create new experimental, memorable experiences for genuine customers.
“As a brand, it is our responsibility to ensure that any shoes we’re releasing are getting into the hands of the people who really are fans,” explains Adidas’s Szymczyk. “When we do a shoe release, one of the things we have to contend with is bots trying to buy more shoes than actual customers, so we have to do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure customers can get through.
“We also have to evolve them each time we do a release, because bots use artificial intelligence and they are always learning.”
Beating the bots
Big sportswear brands are leaning on technology to revolutionise product drops. Although often complicated, finding new ways to release products, such as requiring customers to go to specific location or unlock product details using apps, helps brands stay one step ahead of bots. It also adds a further layer of exclusivity – and therefore hype – around certain styles, as only the most dedicated shoppers are able to secure them.
Consumers now have the thrill of copping a pair through the ‘gamification’ of drops
Ridwane Ettoubi, founder of Presented By
Innovative product drops help compound the thrill of the chase for shoppers, Presented By’s Ettoubi argues: “Consumers now have the thrill of copping a pair through the ‘gamification’ of drops. Brands are also launching secret drops or changing the location of drops. These factors, and more, feed the hype of items that drop, generating an increase in demand, and allowing the culture to flourish and grow.”
Nike, for example, has experimented with virtual reality to re-imagine drops. To purchase last year’s SB Dunk Hi Momofuku sneakers, a collaboration with New York restaurateur David Chang, customers had to point their smartphone cameras at special posters around the city, or at an image of a menu from one of Chang’s restaurants, to unlock an interactive 3D model of the shoe. They were then given the option to buy.
The sportswear heavyweight has also used Facebook Messenger in relation to product drops, last month unveiling a special edition of its Kyrie 4 trainers by asking customers to interact with its own bot on the platform. Customers sent specific emojis to Nike’s Snkr bot to unlock the purchase page.
Do believe the hype
Premium menswear independent End has also found ways to move the drop model on. Customers can enter a lottery to win the chance to purchase the most popular releases – a fairer process than forcing customers to battle bots.
Brands from outside the world of street and sportswear are also adopting drops in a bid to create excitement around new ranges or products. In April, for example, Swedish giant H&M, teased the launch of its new millennial-focused label, Nyden, by revealing online a small selection of products, which promptly sold out.
Young brands are also recognising the power of limited runs. British contemporary womenswear label Kitri, which launched last year, chooses to restrict product to create excitement but also avoid flooding the market, says founder Haeni Kim. Kitri refused to restock a sell-out green midi-dress earlier this year, despite an extensive waiting list.
“[Offering limited runs] was a choice from the beginning, because I didn’t want customers to have that fear of buying into a brand to find tons of other people wearing it,” she says. “I also wanted to make sure the items felt special, so people who have found the garment and the brand, and can be one of only a few people wearing it.”
In a crowded market, where consumers are more spoilt for choice than ever before, limited products hold a particular allure for customers who want to stand out from the crowd. The soaring success of street and sportswear brands has brought the drop model to the retail industry’s attention and online drops are becoming more sophisticated as brands battle to keep customers engaged.