Is the Drop Model of Releasing Products Dead?
- Text Trey Taylor
- Design Emily Zhang
Is the drop model dead? Supreme, the streetwear brand that became synonymous with exclusive releases that created snaking lines of hypebeasts outside of brick-and mortar-stores hoping to get past a bouncer to cop it—has been declared “dead” by Highsnobiety. Known for one-off grails such as a Madonna t-shirt, a Fender guitar or a literal brick, Supreme arguably reached a height of mass appeal in 2017, the same year they crossed into luxury via a menswear collaboration with Louis Vuitton. That year, the website Supreme Community tracked just how quickly many goods would sell out. (On average, stock would be depleted in less than 10 seconds.)
Perfecting a business model of releasing a limited amount of product and marketing it as exclusive to their cult fanbase helped the brand rise from a niche company with roots in skate culture to a global phenomenon driving the menswear industry. As GQ’s Sam Hine pointed out, once Supreme was acquired by The North Face parent company VF in 2020 for $2.1 billion, “the New York label…started to resemble something that was once basically unimaginable: a regular fashion brand.” The lines have disappeared. Products from their drops are still available to purchase long after their initial online release and their value on the resale market has significantly dipped. If the biggest brand to use the drop model can no longer make it work successfully, is the model broken too?
The jury is out. However, as the influence of the drop model wanes, a new tactic is redefining exclusivity. If recent headlines are to be believed, we have entered the age of the personal shopper. Luxury shopping services tailored to jet-setting customers, like Luminaire and SourceWhere, are enjoying newfound popularity and provide 24/7 customer support, assistance in locating hard-to-find items and membership discounts—no matter where you are in the world. While these services are geared more towards the Bills and Bezoses, there has also been, as The New York Times reports, a “graduation of the young male customer who came of age in the era of limited-edition sneakers and Supreme items as asset classes.”
Personal shoppers are rebranding as expert vintage fashion dealers or closet curators; looks are requested via lookbook; fittings are virtual. Your personal representative from The RealReal—the world’s largest online marketplace for luxury consignment—texts you like a bestie, asking if you have any new items to offload. As culture becomes increasingly more fractured, the institutional “drop” is shifting away from monolithic brands and into the hands of individuals. Streaming services like Netflix are turning their backs on releasing an entire season of a series at once in favor of a weekly approach. As online ticket sellers receive pushback from fans, some artists are taking matters into their own hands, like Maggie Rogers, who is selling tickets to her shows in person.
To explain how the drop model has plateaued, one first must understand how it came to dominate. The drop model revolutionized fashion by creating a sense of exclusivity and urgency that elevated streetwear brands to global popularity—the Supreme x Vuitton collab arguably marking its apex.
However, as brands like Supreme continued to release limited-edition products, the hype around them dissipated. Sneaker bots and resellers ended up securing the product, and it became increasingly difficult for actual consumers to get their hands on what they wanted. A model that once created hype and excitement became a frustrating and alienating experience. Since acquisition, Supreme has taken measures to battle bot buyers by, among other things, moving its webstore to e-commerce platform Shopify.
To stay relevant, some fashion brands began to evolve their approach to product releases. Brooklyn-based label Telfar, which previously had success via the drop model with its ubiquitous “Shopping Bag,” a style starting at around $140 and colloquially known as “the Bushwick Birkin,” is now turning the drop model on its head to make its accessible luxury even more accessible. They recently made headlines by introducing an “anti-luxury” pricing scheme. An item becomes available for sale at a discounted price. The price slowly increases once the product is live on site. If an item sells out before reaching full retail price, the price at which it has sold out is “locked in” as the “forever” price of that item, putting the choice in the hands (and clicks) of the brand’s biggest fans.
Other fashion brands are combining the drop release with an event, like Marc Jacobs’ Gen Z-targeted sublabel Heaven. The brand fêted the release of their Deftones capsule collection by organizing a secret event in Brooklyn with a surprise concert from the band. Before doors even opened, jokes about the exclusive guest list and fans begging for tickets flooded social feeds. Though it was not tied to any significant merch drop, another pop-up concert in Times Square with the musicians Fred Again, Skrillex and Four Tet served as a “pre-party” for their two-night show at Madison Square Garden.
It’s not confined to fashion, either. Brands in other categories have also experimented with this strategy. Krispy Kreme has used the drop model for a limited run of donuts, such as their annual "Pumpkin Spice" or "Gingerbread" donuts. Airbnb has used the drop model for their "Night At" series, which allowed guests to stay in exclusive locations for one night only. And Black Tomato, a luxury travel company, has used the drop model for rare travel experiences, such as their "Blink" series, which offers unique travel experiences for a limited time.
During the pandemic, no new SKUs were added to many inventories; thus companies had to take stock—literally—of available inventory to drive sales. With brick-and-mortar stores closed, online sales became the primary focus, and the hype of in-person drops was no longer a feasible option. This shift forced brands to reevaluate the drop model and consider alternative ways to create excitement around their products.
Now that we’ve emerged from the other side of “supply pain,” the question of whether the drop model is still successful depends on how you view the brand, or person, which is employing it. Are they seen as “cool,” like the much-hyped British kicks company Corteiz, or are they simply jumping on the bandwagon?
During the Corteiz x #client Nike's recent Air Max 95 launch event in New York City, a large number of people gathered around a digital billboard in Times Square after it was shared on Twitter that coordinates of a location where they could purchase the new shoes would be announced. Once the coordinates flashed up, fans ran, biked and caught the subway to Alphabet City to line up outside of a branded bodega called Corteiz Mart & Deli. Not only did the shoes sell out in a matter of hours, but the limited release galvanized fans to act fast if they wanted to feel like a part of the Corteiz community. The hypey drop was back, this time with the gamified element of a scavenger hunt to get people excited to not just shop, but to create social content.
So maybe it’s not all R.I.P. for the drop model. A better question might be: has it just been waiting for an evolution? Brands that were once built on the hype of limited-edition releases are now focusing on creating pieces that customers can enjoy for years, shifting their strategies to create community through engagement or entirely new tactics altogether. With a new definition of what exclusivity means, customers will have to continue paying close attention to their favorite brands’ moves if they want to be part of the conversation. That no longer looks like lining up for drops. After all, if a shoe drops in the digital forest and nobody hears it, would it make a sale?