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Kickin’ Facts | Gender neutrality, Gen Z’s inclusiveness and how this will shift the sneaker industry forever

Sneakers are stage and sold as men’s, women’s, or kids shoes. However, over half of Gen Z knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. What does this mean for the future of sneaker shopping?

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“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on Black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.

Gen Z and the generation behind them, Gen Alpha, are the most diverse populations America has ever seen. They are known to have strong opinions on controversial issues while actively embracing new ideas and concepts. Their voices are loud and heard in their communities and in their homes.

Speaking of their home life, four out of five Gen Alpha children impact their family’s purchasing decisions, with kids under twelve influencing $500 billion in purchases per year. Gen Z makes up about 40 percent of global consumers including a $143 billion spending power. Uniting both groups gives you the quintessential target sneaker consumer.

Everyone is chasing the youth culture consumer — from the brands themselves to retailers like Nordstrom and Foot Locker. The bells and whistles of collaborations and innovation are often used to intrigue both generations. However, the mark is still being missed when looking at the behaviors of how we shop. And in sneaker culture, if I’m keeping it a buck, the tradition of shopping is fundamental to the total experience.

Recognizing that sneaker shopping looks different amidst a pandemic, one thing remains consistent. Like most traditional apparel and footwear, products in sneakers and streetwear are segmented by gender, regardless of if you’re in-person or online. Whether you’re shopping for sneakers in a department store or boutique, the shoes are staged and sold as men’s, women’s, or kids. Moreover, the women’s section is typically just one sad little lonely wall. This doesn’t bother women in the sneaker community much, as we aren’t hunting down the products made for us.

It’s quite typical for women in the community to shop men’s first, a behavior that is somewhat learned, as the hottest drops are always men’s. Women often shop in kids as well, though today’s children typically aren’t only shopping in their own category. From ages 1-17, your feet can grow 1/2 a size to a full size over some months. In personal experience, particularly with boys, their feet often grow past the GS (Grade School) range before they are finished with grade school.

Lastly, when looking at the times they do get a women’s release “right,” the men want in on the action, too, like the Aleali May Jordan 1 or the Off-White Jordan 4. Men’s releases are also far more colorful in recent years with Pink used on a few popular releases, my personal faves being Joe Freshgood’s New Balance 992 and the Union Jordan 4. The lines between the traditional men’s, women’s, and kids offerings are shifting, blurring, and bending, a trend that has no choice but to grow due to Gen Z and Gen Alpha’s core values.

Both generations hold inclusivity close to their hearts with Gen Z, in particular, being more resistant to the idea of identifying as one “thing.” And that goes from their profession to their gender identity. Gen Z participants in a recent study reported identifying as not heterosexual, not cis-gender, and not rigidly masculine or feminine with 41 percent identifying as neutral on the spectrum. Fifty six percent of Gen Z knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and studies show that Gen Alpha also rallies for justice across gender issues.

What does that mean for a sneaker retail landscape that immediately skews you into a specific product set? A dynamic and crucial shift.

What used to be overlooked as a “woman’s problem” is now a much deeper societal problem, effecting every shopper in the target demographic. Whether you are a nonconforming young adult, a grade school kid with large feet, or a woman shopping in the kid’s section, chances are your shopping experience is lackluster AF.

We have seen brands attempt to crack this issue, starting with Foot Locker’s Power Store. The experiential outposts are known as “community” stores, targeting trends in the neighborhood’s hyperlocal area, and hiring from within. While The Power Store carries all three offerings, the men’s and kids remains separated with an exclusive women’s shop that continues to silo the experience. In some of the iterations, women’s and kids sit together on the same floor in an effort to speak to “moms with strollers,” but not necessarily the childless woman with small feet. This is the mistake brands and retailers repeatedly make, as they fail to see the diversity of thought amongst women while viewing us through only two lenses: athlete and mother.

For kids who need to size up to men’s, they must leave the section, or sometimes the entire floor, disjointing the shopping experience once again. And for the men who want to shop the women’s product offering, the experience is strained at best.

adidas Originals is also trying their hand at creating inclusive spaces, pushing the envelope in London’s SoHo District with their new gender-neutral concept shop. Instead of segmenting and merchandising the store by gender, adidas is grouping the product based on sport or theme. I have hope for this approach, as this is the insight that I have delivered to brands over the past few years. The OG community — those collecting sneakers before the internet existed — fell in love with the culture through icons. One of the first campaigns to speak to that was Nike’s “Be Like Mike.” It wasn’t just the boys who wanted to soar like MJ, rock shell toes like Run DMC, or wear denim and braids like Allen Iverson. Style knows no gender, and if it’s dope, it’s dope, period. By segmenting the product based on theme or style and not gender, you are able to speak to a persona that isn’t defined by something as fluid as gender identity. Instead, you speak to the individual consumer’s unique preferences by championing personal style; their age or gender is irrelevant.

Like the Foot Locker Power Store, adidas gender-neutral London Soho location is also focused on its home community. Products that were previously online-only will be available at the concept shop with the hopes of bringing back the community feels that were created on release day in the early years of sneaker culture. While waiting in line for a drop, the relationships you made were the culture’s backbone before the e-commerce boom. That critical piece was stolen when violence and crime forced camp-outs to be replaced with raffles and online releases. Yet, adidas has put some intention around bringing it back by using the London SoHo location as a testing ground for some of the experiential ideas before rolling them out on a global scale.

According to the Huffington Post, “The next generation of kids will be more opinionated, more diverse and more focused on fairness and inclusion than any generation before them.” Billions of dollars of spending power are in the hands of those kids, and sneaker brands can either get on board or get left. Selling with a more centralized voice, accounting for the diversity of thought, and celebrating style over the stereotypes will be imperative tactics for the big five sneaker brands, as well as any retailer selling apparel and footwear. Culture is shifting, and right now, only a few are being served. But imagine the magic that could happen if sneaker shopping was enchanting again? If the barriers to entry were removed, and we all had equitable access to dope experiences and dope products? Undoubtedly you would see new customer acquisition while creating loyalty amongst existing ones. Beyond that, both the new and existing customers would feel seen, heard, and valued for who they are. They would feel like they belong in the spaces they want to be in — and they do.

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