Image: GettyImages/Nevena1987

Since the onset of COVID-19, inventory shortages and shipping delays have hamstrung product rollouts across industries. Nearly one year after the initial release of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, gamers are still having trouble getting their hands on a new console. On top of these hardware shortages and logistical bottlenecks, a bevy of bots racing humans to checkout are only adding to the online shopping challenge. But how do these bots work and what strategies can humans use to bypass the bots and potentially score a console amid shortages?

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Botters vs human: An online shopping click race

Using a hypothetical example, Jason Kent, hacker in residence at Cequence, described a situation where a retailer is set to drop 20 consoles as part of a restock. In this instance, the “botters,” as he described them, will set their systems to look for items up for sale “over and over, at computer speed.”

“Once they know what the item is, it is added to the shopping cart and immediately a checkout is initiated,” Kent said. “These botters work in teams so they can have the best chance to get a checkout and ship the item. Keep in mind, each bot represents hundreds of ‘people’ trying to buy the same item.”

“Having even less supply has created even further demand making resale from shopping bots a necessity for more and more people wanting high demand items,” Kent said. “This caused a reaction by the retailers to create environments that are “anti-bot,” but often these techniques further assist the botters.”

As an example, Kent explained that purchasing waiting queues also favor the bots, since they are speedy enough to leave the line and finish transactions; “coupled with the botters’ ability to create hundreds of accounts very quickly, they are in essence the first 100 people in line,” he said.

Add to cart: How to (try to) bypass the bots online

Although there may be little gamers can do about chip shortages and retail-savvy bot battalions, are there any tricks or strategies shoppers can attempt to get past the bots and land a console? The short answer: Not really, but all hope isn’t lost.

In general, there may be limited options to help non-botters beat the machines online, as Kent explained, the general strategy is to “be in the right place at the right time.” A classic adage may still ring true in the digital age: If at first, one does not succeed, try try again. If a person is unable to initially add a console to their cart, Kent said they may need to “wait for a little while and try again.”

The botter blueprint isn’t entirely foolproof and there are inefficiencies even with this automated approach and time is of the essence.

“Often the botters will have problems with the checkout and the stock might rotate back into the pool,” he said. “Both of these strategies are [the] best effort, the retail systems are built for speed and so are the bots, the humans, unfortunately, are just too slow.”

“If you can add the item to your cart, checkout immediately even if you have further shopping to do,” he said. “If you waste time trying to buy additional items the bots will already have purchased all the stock available.”

When asked if there are particular times of day, when gamers may have better odds of purchasing a console and beating the bots, Kent said the “time of day rarely matters.” With what he called “hot-stock sales” luxury items such as sneakers and consoles, the stock hits the retailer site “all at once” and is “scooped up as fast as possible.”

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Strategies, timing and sheer luck aside, Kent said the “real solution” would be retailers implementing systems to identify bots during the purchasing process and subsequently blocking the transaction. On this topic, Kent said he is aware of retailers, such as Cequence customers, that block such bots, explaining “few companies” choose to block these agents because it is a difficult undertaking and companies are “afraid to block a valid transaction.”

Discussing measures to prevent bots from snatching inventories, Renee Gittins, executive director at International Game Developers Association, said some retailers have done more than others, although “not all have had the development resources or motivation to take such measures.”

Providing customers with higher odds of buying a console “helps build loyalty and customer relationships,” Gittins said, making these measures a “worthwhile investment” for companies with the “development bandwidth or who deal with commonly scalped items.” However, she said creating a “bot-proof website is nearly impossible,” adding that there are myriad ways botters can work around preventative measures.

A Target spokesperson responded to TechRepublic’s questions and request to comment, stating that the company is “focused on making it easy for guests to find and get the items they’re looking for at Target,” adding that Target has “many measures in place to protect our website from bots and continually enhance our tools and technology to track and block common bots.”

Although this type of bot behavior “usually” spikes during the holiday season or around the initial product release, Gittins said, the disruptions related to the chip shortage has led, at least in part, to sustained high levels of scalping, even multiple months after the initial release of these consoles.

At the moment, chip supplies aren’t expected to normalize anytime soon, and some experts TechRepublic has interviewed foresee these shortages lasting into 2023, meaning these bots could be around to irritate holiday shoppers this season and next year.

Whether it’s purchasing graphics cards, gaming consoles or other high-demand items, Gittins recommended people seek out “nonstandard retailers,” locating stores selling “batches of such items exclusively in-person and joining online “communities dedicated to helping real gamers get the consoles” and other needed items.