How to Stop Shopping Bots from Outbidding your Customers Online
The new PlayStation 5 is incredible! The realism of the eye-watering graphics of Gran Turismo 7 is beyond comprehension. If you are not into racing games, then maybe the slaying of high-def demons in Demon’s Souls with all the ultra-realistic blood and fire is more your thing. Maybe you are on the other side of the next-gen console wars and prefer the Xbox Series X. Or maybe the most amazing graphics ever aren’t your mainstay, and you prefer the more family-friendly Nintendo Switch (OLED version) games.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter which system you like, because you or your customers haven’t been able to get your hands on any of these gaming consoles anyways. And if you have, you probably paid twice the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for it from a reseller.
The reason is twofold. First, there is an acute shortage of semiconductor chips due to our insatiable consumer demand for electronics plus a worldwide pandemic-induced supply chain disruption to boot. Second, bad actors are capitalizing on these shortages and deploying shopping bots to purchase these in-demand products before a live human customer even has the chance.
A recent Forrester article has labelled this phenomenon as a “Perfect Storm: Chip Shortage + Supply Chain Disruption = Soaring Bot Operator Activity” and predict that it will persist well into 2023. For consumers this means no PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X or Switch OLED nor many other in-demand/related products such as graphics cards (you can also thank crypto mining for that).
Other product categories are also affected by these shopping bots such as limited supply clothing items, which underlines a rather odd (at least according to this author) limited edition sneaker collecting subculture, which is widespread enough to even warrant an entry in Wikipedia.
Potential customers of online retail sites, who are unable to find the product they want, either leave disappointed or end up paying extra for the product from a reseller (FYI: the resellers are usually the individuals operating the shopping bots).
To illustrate, upon searching one popular reseller platform, eBay, for PlayStation 5s, the returned results list several new Sony PlayStation 5 (disk versions) selling for between $US 800-900. Whereas the MSRP of the new Sony PlayStation 5 (disk version) is only $US 499.99! Almost twice the price!
How do shopping bots work?
Shopping bots are tiny computer programs programmed to scour retailer websites and buy up any new highly-sought-after items as soon as they become available online. The speed at which these bots operate is lighting fast such that the order can be completed before a human customer is even able to click the checkout button. KGW news out of Portland reports that the shopping bots can make a purchase in as little as 200 milliseconds – the same amount of time it takes for a human eye to blink.
In his video “How Do Shopping Bots Work?” Youtuber kyletalksmoney explains that even though the task of a shopping bot is relatively simple, the program is quite complicated. Kyle (assuming that that is his real name) divides the architecture of a website into 2 layers.
The 1st layer (aka: the frontend) is what customers see and it is designed to be as simple as possible such that customers can easily click on what they want to buy, enter in their payment and shipping information and then checkout. The 2nd layer (aka: the backend) is in the background completing all the additional processes necessary towards fulfilling the transaction and also updating important information along the way such as the amount of stock remaining.
Shopping bots are programmed to operate on the backend of the website, allowing them to bypass the UX of the frontend and repeat their purchase requests over and over again.
How to get your own shopping bot? The shopping bot industry
So you want to join the shopping bot party? As the saying goes: “If you can’t beat ‘em, then join ‘em”. There is some work involved in bringing a shopping bot to life. If you know how to program, then you can easily make your own. Michael Xu, for example, details in this post how to write the code for a sniping bot (his term for shopping bot) in Python.
Furthermore, there are readily available Python packages such as Python Requests which provide the code base necessary for a good start in programming your own bot. However, give that there is an ongoing war on bots from various online retailers out there, only the most sophisticated bots stand a chance of beating the various safeguards that retailers are implementing.
A better option then is to buy a shopping bot. Shopping bots have their own mini-industry wherein more tech-savvy consumers can purchase these bots as a service. Put some money down to rent or buy a key for one of these online bot services and set them to purchase your desired items for you. These are actual legal companies that sell or rent out bots as a service. Some of the more well-known ones are Stellar, Lex and Ominous.
RedBeard, a YouTuber, made a video covering the ins and outs of buying a bot. The video starts with a visit to the above-mentioned bot selling websites to buy a bot. Much to RedBeard’s chagrin, they are all sold out! He quips about supply and demand, suggesting that these bot sellers keep the market in demand in order to keep the prices high. If this is true, it would be a fascinating model of price-fixing in the bot markets.
RedBeard continues by adding that there are ways to get around these shortages. For instance, the bot sellers will sometimes drop a few keys/licenses for the software on Twitter or Discord. However, this leads to thousands of people showing up for the drop and the keys being sold out in seconds. Ironically, there are also bots programmed to take advantage of these drops, which means that shopping bots are buying shopping bots.
A final and the best option for getting a bot, according to RedBeard, involves a visit to your local bot reseller website, the best one being BotMart. RedBeard peruses through the website live on camera and looks at the options available for the Stellar bot, as an example. The listings appear like the Classifieds section of a newspaper with an option to sell, buy/trade, or buy/sell a rental of a bot. Oh, and you need a BotMart membership to message users on the website and ensure safe transactions with a middleman service which will hold the key in escrow for you until your payment clears - nicely rounding out the shopping bot industry!
Shopping bots are taking over ecommerce as we know it
Shopping bots are no longer simple little programs that automate online shopping. As discussed, it is an industry that sells complex, state-of-the-art programs tuned to out-perform the best attempts by retailers to stop them.
An article published at equities.com asked a spokesman at Walmart about the issue and the response was chilling: the online retailer had blocked more than 20 million bot attempts within the first 30 minutes of a recent PS5 sales event. Target and GameStop also said they have high-tech bot protection software on their websites. However, as the industry grows and bot usage increases around the world, their coders remain a step ahead of corporate security officials.
Sony has taken some extra steps for its beloved PlayStation fans by setting up a registration page where you can pre-register to purchase a PS5 console directly. It’s only available for select countries and has only very limited supplies. Microsoft has an option too, but it is only available to Xbox One owners in the United States, and gamers need to sign up for the Xbox Insider Program to take part. The Nintendo Switch (OLED version) is not as hot of a commodity but is still mostly sold out around the world. There is an option to pre-order one, at least in Germany, at Gamestop.de, which are currently set to ship at the end of March. To be clear, these are not fixes to the shopping bot issue but rather release valves. These console manufacturers are in the business of producing their wares and do not have the logistics in place to ship their products worldwide. They rely on retailers to do this.
Identity verification with liveness checks: a solution in progress to stop shopping bots
At PXL Vision, we have built a state-of-the-art identity verification (IDV) solution based around document scanning and liveness checks. The liveness component of our IDV platform uses advanced machine learning and computer vision algorithms that could be leveraged to ascertain whether or not the customer behind a pending sale is a human operator. The key challenge is how to implement this in such a way to not cause undue friction to your customers. Speak with one of our identity experts today and learn how our technology could be used to solve your shopping bot problem.