Nike runs amok in New York Marketing: At New York's Nike Town, the newest temple to the swoosh, worshipers bow at the feet of the gods of sneakerdom.

November 18, 1996|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Forget Thanksgiving and Christmas. James Jennings has his own special holiday planned this year.

On Saturday, Nov. 23, he'll take the day off from work and go to his new place of worship in midtown Manhattan, where he will happily plunk down $135. On the day the new Air Jordans come out, salvation doesn't come any cheaper.

Jennings, a 22-year-old mailroom clerk from Queens, isn't going to perform his rite of devotion in any old shoe store. He will make his pilgrimage to the brand new Nike Town, the Wailing Wall of sneakers.

Even at this moment, he is meditating in front of the Manhattan superstore's Air Jordan shrine, which displays each pair the world's largest maker of athletic footwear has issued since it started the line in 1987.

"This is the store that everybody dreams about," Jennings says, a faraway look in his eyes. "Look, man -- Nike everywhere." Truer words were never uttered.

James pronounces Nike as if it rhymes with "bike." Nike, of course, has built a $6.4 billion business as NYE-KEE, though classics buffs know the brand's inspiration, the Greek goddess of victory (depicted sans logoed footwear on ancient amphora), is properly pronounced NEE-KAY. But for the Oregon-based company's holy tribunal, any variation is acceptable, as long as disciples continue to pay homage, cash or credit.

Bigger and better

Open just since Nov. 1, Nike Town Manhattan is the seventh of Nike's temples. But this being New York, this version is bigger, better, more high-tech than any of its predecessors in provinces like Atlanta and Los Angeles. It is a five-floor, 66,000-square-foot monument to the Nike "swoosh" logo -- part archive (the waffle iron where the first Nike running shoe soles were cooked up is on display), part amusement park (infrared foot-sizing systems, an 800-square-foot video screen), all self-promotion (photos of famous Nike endorsers cover almost the entire five-floor rear wall).

On the site of the old Bonwit Teller department store, Nike Town is the latest brand showplace to rise up on formerly sedate, suddenly theme-saturated East 57th Street. Across the way are Warner Bros. and Levi's. The Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood are a block or two west. Right next door is famed jeweler Tiffany, which for now, at least, refuses to sound the old-guard cry of "there goes the neighborhood."

"Part of the beauty of the city is that it changes constantly, and that's just another way the city is changing," observes Richard Miner, a salesman (and admitted Reebok fancier) at the venerable jeweler. Still, the thought of Holly Golightly shopping for aerobic trainers in "Breakfast at Nike Town" gives pause.

One passer-by on 57th Street wasn't as charitable as Miner.

"It used to be a nice place," says the businessman as he swooshes by. "Now it's Disneyland." Actually, Disney has conquered other territory in Manhattan. Its four huge stores are a short jog away.

Nike Town's publicists say years of research went into designing a building that would say "New York." The result? An old-time public school gymnasium facade, complete with brick and arched windows. Etched into its walls are the words "Honor, Courage, Victory and Teamwork": "the universal values in sports," Nike says.

Inside, the old gym gives way to new technology. There are as many as 1,200 shoes on display. Shoes are delivered to customers via 26 clear "shoe tubes" that swoosh boxes along pneumatically from storeroom sales floors. Entertainment is everywhere, from a huge aquarium to an interactive soccer display to seven TV monitors constantly tuned to sporting events around the globe.

Some of the elite athletes who wear the Nike label have "donated" mementos for the store's expanding collection. Champion sprinter Michael Johnson's golden track shoes are encased in a brightly lit glass cylinder. Anything to push the swoosh.

At least one star in the Nike firmament apparently feels the swoosh is pushing too far. Washington Bullets forward Chris Webber has refused to wear his signature shoe this season, ostensibly in protest over its $140 price tag making it a dangerous object of desire among impoverished kids. (Nike says the dispute is more about the value of Webber's contract.) Still, for now he is wearing a different brand.

Michael Jordan

By contrast, Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls legend and Nike's most prized shoe salesman, says he doesn't get involved with the pricing and advertising of the Air Jordan line. Jordan is bigger than a Broadway star on 57th Street: Across from the Nike cathedral where his high tops are raised on high, Warner Bros. has his Airness' likeness plastered over its windows to hype his new animated movie, "Space Jam."

While some see Nike Town as excessive, at least some among the estimated 15,000 a day who have trooped in since the opening think that's also its charm.

Diane Epstein had stopped in out of curiosity. Her job, she says, is to provide interiors for such "concept stores." It's just the way, she insists, that retail is going.

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