This season you’re probably competing with computers that can nab hot items online faster than you can. Here’s how to even the odds.
Last December at 3 a.m., McCoy McShane rocketed out of bed at the blare of a nuclear-alarm-level alert coming from his open laptop computer.
McShane was in no danger but he was at war, so to speak. The University of Michigan graduate student, 23 years old at the time, was trying to get his hands on one of the hottest items of the year, a PlayStation 5 gaming console, and his combatants were an army of bots trying to do the same thing. “I was used to things selling out in under 3 seconds online,” he says.
Bots, short for software robots, are computer programs that automate human tasks on the internet. While they have legitimate uses, shopping bots can be employed to inexhaustibly scour the internet and social media, reading inventory codes and finding product pages even before items are made available for sale. When they are, the bots buy the products with lightning speed with the aim of reselling them for a significant upcharge.
And this holiday season, so-called Grinch bots are adding to the woes of consumers who are already confronting pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions.
Grinch bots can be hard to defeat. You know that security page you’re directed to before you can complete an online purchase, the one that asks you to select all the images of stoplights or sidewalks? Although those were created to foil bots, some have been programmed to blow right past them.
That’s what happened the morning McShane was awakened. He’d set an alert on a shopping service to let him know when new stock was available. He got the PS5 into his cart but was stopped at checkout, when he got a message telling him the product had sold out.
A Grinch bot might have robbed McCoy of his PS5, but ironically it was a bot that alerted him to the restock. Weeks earlier, McShane took an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach and began following an account he stumbled upon when scouring Twitch, an interactive livestreaming service favored by gamers. The account was running a bot programmed to search the internet for retailers restocking PS5 inventory.
While the service he used was free and open to anyone who happened to find it, other online enterprises sell subscriptions to shopping bots for a fee. One, Snailbot, is a cloud service that scours retailers for restocks of hot items. Though pricey at $99 a month, it may be worth it if you’re desperately in need of whatever it is you’re shopping for and don’t want to pay a bot reseller through the nose for it.
If you’d rather play video games than battle Grinch bots online, register for an opportunity to purchase a PS5 console directly from Sony. While this is free and open to anyone, Sony will invite only a limited number of people in the U.S. to get dibs on a console. The company says it will extend invitations to buy “based on previous interests and PlayStation activities,” which may tip the scales toward existing customers.
Since May, Microsoft has been piloting a similar program for its Xbox consoles. This one is strictly for existing customers and requires them to have either the Xbox Insider Hub app or an Xbox One console to qualify for the chance to buy a device directly from the company.
When time is of the essence, a little prep work can go a long way. If you know which retailer you want to buy a particular item from, create an account with it that includes your address and credit card info to speed the checkout process if and when the time comes. To ensure that your sensitive information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, try this tip only on a private device on a secure network.
When it comes to hard-to-find items, retailer mobile apps like those from Amazon, Best Buy, and Nike can be very good things. Download the apps to your smartphone, then fill out the shipping, billing, and in-app purchase permissions. This saves time because a retail app is faster than a web page. Some, like Amazon, have features that let you add desired items to a wish list, even if they’re not currently in stock. When the products are restocked, they’re added directly to your cart right from the wish list.
A 2021 survey by Deloitte found that the average U.S. household has 25 internet-connected devices, including smartphones, computers, tablets, and video game consoles. When a highly anticipated product release date or annual sale approaches, enlist every member of your family to help cross the buying finish line by using every device at your disposal. You’ll have strength in numbers.
Contact your senators and representatives and urge them to legislate against Grinch bots.
Some retailers, aware of the bot plague, are taking steps to combat it.
And Walmart says its bot preventative actions proved useful when the release of new gaming systems like PlayStation 5 drove “levels and patterns of traffic on our site and our apps we’ve previously never seen,” according to a press release. The retailer says it was able to block more than 20 million bot attempts within the first 30 minutes of the consoles being restocked.
The Stopping Grinch Bots Act, introduced in 2018 and then again during the 2019 holiday season, never became law. The bill would have made it unlawful to use bots to intentionally bypass a website’s security measures in order to purchase and resell its products or services in interstate commerce.
But it was reintroduced this year on Cyber Monday, and maybe the third time will be the charm. Consumer Reports supports the passage of the proposed legislation. “This bill will help stop this predatory practice and create a more level playing field so everyone has a fair chance of buying popular products at reasonable prices when shopping online,” says Chuck Bell, advocacy program director at Consumer Reports.
On a happy note, one year after beginning his quest, McCoy McShane became the proud owner of a PlayStation 5. The console arrived the night before Thanksgiving courtesy of his partner, who snagged one randomly scrolling through Best Buy online, McShane says.
Perhaps it truly is the season of miracles.
I’m a journalist with a healthy sense of outrage and a passion for amplifying the voices of those too often ignored. I’ve worked behind the scenes at CNN, as a managing editor in community television, and as senior correspondent at BRIC-TV, where I was part of an Emmy Award–winning team dedicated to social justice. At CR, I explore marketplace inequities to remove barriers between consumers and the goods and services they are seeking.
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