The wild world of being a sneaker broker
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The first time I met Yuanrun Zheng (he goes by Z) was over FaceTime.
He’s on a road trip. Not the vacation kind, the work kind. I call him and he picks up while driving in his minivan. He tells me he’s on a sneaker run.
Z is a sneaker broker.
And unlike shoes, sneaker brokers are difficult to put in a box. You’re the mediator, the buyer, the seller, the delivery guy, the plug. Being dialed into the who, what, when, and where is everything in this business.
It’s how you put bread on the table.
Z is an enigma. He’s done it all in the sneaker business, having built several successful businesses (online and in-store) from scratch by being charming, savvy, and calculated. So, naturally, I wanted to learn as much as possible from an insider. Here’s our conversation… Enjoy.
Tell us about your background.
I'm originally from Ningbo (near Shanghai), a coastal city in China. When I was 12, I moved to The States with my family because of my mom, who received a job offer to work at the University of Mississippi. We packed up everything we had and made the big move. When I got older, I relocated to Nashville I’ve been here for a while.
How did you first get into the reselling market?
Funny enough, I originally got into reselling after watching my mom flip iPads in the early hype days. That’s where I learned about the ins and outs of a reselling operation.
When I got older, I had a job working part-time at KFC, but I spent so much time thinking about getting into the sneaker reselling business. I used to save half of my paycheck every month and flip sneakers, but I wasn't sure if I should go full-time with it.
Luckily my mom helped me get started. She gave me pointers on finance, bookkeeping, and leveraging credit cards. She even helped me acquire a few of my first pairs too. All of that support gave me the confidence that I needed to start a business, and that’s when I went all in. In the first six months, I profited over $6,000.
The rest is history.
What’s the craziest pair of sneakers you’ve ever sold?
Years ago, I sold a pair of Nike Air Yeezy 2 Red Octobers to a guy in NYC for $5,000.
As soon as they became available I scooped them up. I was living in Atlanta at the time, but the guy who wanted them from me was in Brooklyn, so I flew there to do the transaction in person. I landed at La Guardia airport and immediately took a cab to somewhere deep in Brooklyn, just to meet the buyer at his clothing store.
The buyer didn’t believe the sneakers were real, so we hopped into his white Mercedez Benz and drove to Flight Club in Soho to verify.
We arrived at Flight Club, and the buyer has one of his friends briefly check the shoes out, and he was like: "Nah, these aren't real." It had me looking crazy.
So, I told the employee to go downstairs and grab a pair out of the same shoe. He came back up with a pair of the Yeezy 2’s and we compared them. The buyer checks both shoes, the boxes, insoles, labels, the whole nine. They were identical.
As we wrap up the sale, the buyer starts trying to haggle with me on the price, but I wouldn't budge. He ended up giving me the asking price and hands me a huge wad of cash, all $20s, $10s, and $5s.
It was an eventful day.
What's a day in the life of a sneaker broker like?
It’s a lot of hustle.
When I’m home, a normal day looks like this: wake up, check my sales and account balances, print all my shipping labels from the previous day’s sales, head over to one of my shops, coordinate and plan out the day/week at the shop, process any new inventory, go to the gym, list new inventory, bookkeeping, etc. It’s not really glamorous, but all of it is important.
When I’m on the road (which happens to be a lot) I’m often buying more shoes, attending visiting sneaker shows, or visiting sneaker shops. I always map out the shops I’m going to visiting on my drive and who I’ll want to connect with I’ll I’m on the road. For me, it’s important to stay updated on different regions and what sneakers they’re selling, as well as looking at how other shops layout their stores.
You have retail locations in Hendersonville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Few people would expect a sneakerhead to do that. Why Tennessee?
Honestly, there are a few reasons. Most would expect me to open in a big city because that’s where “the market” is, but there’s plenty of customers willing and available to shop regularly at my stores. Why go enter a market where there’s already loads of competition to compete with when you simply own an entire market by being the only game in town?
The other reason is to have spaces where people can connect with the products. I’ve been on both sides of selling now (in-store and online), and while it’s clear there are plenty of transactions happening on the internet, I also think it’s important to give people a place where they see, touch, and feel the sneakers. I want to invest in being local, giving my shops that mom-and-pop vibe where I build a loyal base of customers. This is especially important for the younger generation to have.
How do you get access to exclusive sneakers?
It’s all about finding the right info at the right time. When is the shoe drop? Where is it being sold? Who’s my connect? Who’s got the right plug to get me what I need? How am I going to execute it… do I need to join a raffle, do I need to be somewhere, how much will the connect charge me on top of the existing costs?
I like to think that it’s a blend of art and science. Some things are about formulas and clockwork, other things require strategy and negotiation.
GOAT and StockX are the new, sexier kids on the block owning the sneaker reselling market share. Who else is out there making a case?
I think eBay is making aggressive moves to compete for market share. Personally, I give them a ton of love, because they don’t charge seller fees for any shoes over $100. eBay actually allows the buyer and seller to connect before transacting, creating space for haggling and ironing out any concerns or issues before committing, which I believe fills a huge void when it comes to the other big marketplaces.
Artists like Kanye and Travis Scott have been instrumental in commercializing sneaker culture what it is in the last decade. Who else is doing that?
Over the last few years, professional athletes and their game-day fits on Instagram have been incredibly influential for consumers. Every time a player walks through the tunnel with a new outfit and pair of kicks, it builds hype. The process is cyclical because that hype feeds back into the sneaker industry. This is a long time coming since the late David Stern made a strict dress code for the NBA, and it’s funny looking back how implementing a dress code essentially created a runway show for players to show off what they’re wearing.
How have you been able to build such an incredible network over the years?
One of the most important things to me is being consistent. You’ve got to be consistent with your sales, regularly pushing out the steady volume. That shows people who have sway that you’re serious. The other important factor is transparency and communication, making sure you’re communicating properly with your connections and being willing to help them when they need to offload inventory. These things come back to help you.
Z is the founder of 23Penny, an online sneaker shop. He is also the owner of two sneaker stores, Soho Gallery and Free Agency, both located in Tennessee. He’s based in Nashville.