The Rise Of Sneaker Bots: Are They Here To Stay?
If there’s one thing you can safely say about the Sneaker Game™, it’s that it certainly isn’t boring. From thriving WDYWT threads to Jordanmania riots, gaggles of sneaker conventions and the odd mental meltdown from ye olde Ye himself, there’s non-stop sneakertainment practically on tap. But for many kids, the heartbreak of missing out on J after J after J is starting to really take the shine off their jonesing. Unprecedented hype around top tier releases means that many are on the verge of tapping out entirely, choked into submission by repeated failures to cop. In 2014, if you’re not on top of your game, you’re not even in the game. There’s so much competition, you simply don’t stand a chance.
Since Sneaker Freaker launched in 2002, social media, smartphones and online retailers have revolutionised the industry. It’s grown, and grown-up fast. For every one head that was into it a decade ago, there seems to be at least 10,000 new bies who are nuts deep in the shoe game today. Brands and retailers have had to recalibrate constantly to keep up with both the appetite of their audience and the ebb and flow of public opinion. The thirst for premium product is seemingly limitless right now. Jordan produces hundreds of thousands of pairs in each signature model, and yet it’s still nowhere near enough to satisfy the hungry hordes. Any which way you look at it, things are snap, crackle and popping like never before, which is a very, very good thing. We love that the scene is getting bigger.
But there are growing pains. Flipping shoes for a buck has always been part of the game, in fact our view is that reselling is an integral element in a stable and healthy eco-system. We have no philosophical issue with anyone buying two pairs, flipping one and making a few bucks. However, things tilted substantially last year. Skyrocketing demand coupled with the online distribution system devised by Nike – mostly to deal with the mindless trouble around Jordan releases in stores – inadvertently produced a new breed of super reseller. As far as we can tell, they don’t even dig sneakers. They are not fans, they are parasites, whose only goal is the acquisition and sale of Nike product for a fat profit. And where there is easy money being made, greed is sure to follow, boosted by the allure of short cuts and sharp practice.
Selling shoes online is a theoretically egalitarian process. A spot of lady luck and a lightning-fast ISP should, in an ideal world, determine who wins and who loses. But the recent development of Bot software has tilted the playing field by eradicating the element of luck. Once the Bot is initiated, you basically sit back and wait for the shoes to hit the webshop before the Bot scoops up the prize on your behalf in a fraction of a second. It’s the digital equivalent of watching your competitors camp out at your local spot then just as they’re about to whip out the Mastercard, you rock up at the last second and go straight to the cash register, while giving everyone a Dirty Sanchez for their troubles.
As the use of Bots surged last year, they suddenly dominated Internet sneaker chatter. If you didn’t use one, you were destined for a destitute life of copping leftovers or paying a huge premium over retail. As Nicky ‘Swish’ Lew wistfully reported on the SF Facebook page, ‘You pine for awesome sneakers. You try your hardest to get them, always failing. It is impossible to be a sneakerhead on the Internet. After failing to get a number of different kicks in the last 6 months, I think I might just give up trying and go buy a pair of Crocs. You can (get) those shit ugly things everywhere.’
In the olden days, when you had to go into a store to buy shoes, queuing up overnight was quite the done thing. On the day of the really big releases, at least you literally knew where you stood – in a line – and you calculated your odds accordingly. You might not have bagged a pair every single time, but if your recon was right and you timed your arrival perfectly, more often than not you scored. But that was then and this is now. In-store releases on a Saturday morning have gone out of favour to a large extent, replaced by random e-com drops, which is what happened with the red Yeezys, one of the most desirable (and valuable to a reseller) releases of the year. If you weren’t wide awake and plugged in, the first thing you knew about it was when you woke up the next day.
Given we’re not a 24/7 sneaker retailer, we were a little slow catching on here at Sneaker Freaker, but when we dropped our Sharkbait PUMAs in late 2013, it didn’t take long to get wise. As expected, the shoes were a sell-out, but the ultrasonic speed at which they disappeared just did not compute. Thousands of kids were left heartbroken as they punched the refresh button over and over again to no avail. Meanwhile, one leisurely Sharkbait winner even found the time to buy some back issues of the magazine before checking out with minutes to spare. WTF? Even the famously anosmic Michael Hutchence could smell something was fishy about the whole thing. Immediately after the meltdown, we noticed that a half dozen pairs had already been on the Bay with Buy It Now prices of $1200 for several days before our official release date. We found this auto-cop confidence amusing, but it did make us wonder. How could these resellers be SO sure they’d have a pair to flip?
Our Facebook page was lighting up like Tommy Chong. The universal tone was disbelief, but we also drew a fair bit of salty criticism – some justified, some not so much. Amy Lewis took aim at our tech credentials, ‘Your cart system is a joke. Lets you add as many as you like, forces you through the entire PayPal process before dumping you out again. Absolutely rubbish.’ Spencer Davies was mystified but at least he wasn’t naive, ‘Did anyone? Really? It’s not humanly possible to go through the checkout that quickly.’ Spencer was right, it wasn’t humanly possible to check-out that quickly.
Whilst our Shopify e-com system coped with the data crunch, the handful of pairs we had for sale were never going to satisfy demand. You don’t need to be Good Will Hunting to work out that not everyone was gonna enjoy those apples. Whilst we admit we gravely miscalculated the heat around the Sharkbaits, there was another problem. Kiang Lay joined the throbbing Facebook thread, ‘What is Bots? People use it to cop online?’. David McMartin answered a few seconds later, ‘It’s a program that buys for you as soon as the shoes drop. It’s also fucking bullshit’.
WHAT IS BOTS?
The author of the first Bot has never been publicly attributed, and at this point it’s not even clear it was even originally intended to target sneaker retailers. Perhaps it was an geek who desperately wanted to get his hands on the first iPhone or iPad and saw a weakness in the Apple e-com system? Prices range from $50 to a few hunge and it doesn’t take more than a second to locate dozens of them for sale on eBay and YouTube. Depending on the nature of their deployment, these Bots take different forms. Twitter Bots monitor @Nikestores. Foot Locker and Eastbay both have a Bot crafted to their needs.,
Nike launched their RSVP program to manage launches at their own retail stores and now it too has a Bot. To Nike’s credit, they are addressing the problem full frontal. The T&Cs on Nike RSVP include the following, ‘In an attempt to deliver a safe and level playing field, Nike reserves the right to ban any participants who make threats, harass or attempt to cheat or abuse the process by any means, including use of programs or scripts that provide them an unfair advantage.’ Stories are emerging of successful Bot shoppers having their orders cancelled, though it’s unclear whether Nike’s e-com technology is able to draw a distinction between Bot orders and regular orders. Perhaps it is simply the inhuman speed at which the orders arrive that betrays their origin.
Nike recently upped the ante once again by adding another Captcha-type layer to their checkout sequence for the 23 Infrared Jordan III release in March, 2014. Forcing users to interact with their e-com software by answering a visual cue should go a long way towards evening out the entire process, but we shall see if the Bots are able to innovate and bounce back with a 2.0 upgrade that finds a new wormhole in Nike’s RSVP system.
I asked a few boutique retailers about their strategy for dealing with Bots and their response varied from mild acceptance to profound annoyance. Whilst Nike has the resources to combat the army of Bots, smaller operators will struggle to find the time and money to Bot-proof their e-com sites. Deon from Concepts told us that ‘Nothing about buying sneakers is fair. We barely can secure pairs for our regulars due to allocations and politics. Kids will complain no matter what. This Shop Bot issue is just the evolution of resellers. Greed is at an all time high.’
Jay from Bodega was aware of Bots being used as far back as 2011, but says he really noticed they became much more prominent in 2013. ‘As long as they are available to everybody, which they certainly seem to be, the playing field seems level. If you had to be a grad student at MIT to have one, then my feelings would change. The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is that a much higher percentage of people using Bots seem to be resellers, not end consumers.’
YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT.
Using a Bot isn’t fair – at least in the sporting sense of an equal playing field – but nor is it a crime. Just like cultivating a contact on the inside at a sneaker spot or paying a homeless bum to queue in a line-up for your Fiegs, a Bot is simply a method that any natural born hustler would use to stay one step ahead of the pack. But their widespread use does seem to have implications for the general health of the scene. If everyone is armed with a Bot, who wins then? Doesn’t it cancel out the whole point of having one? Does having the fastest Bot mean you’re the only dude in town who regularly cops heat? Perhaps the most damaging aspect to these Bots is that they’ll cold-crush the dreams of regular joes copping Kobes, LeBrons and Jordans. If that’s the case, it’s only a matter of time before the enthusiasm of many 'lifelong' sneakerheads is sapped permanently.
In all likelihood, the Bot issue will play itself out over the next year or so, but till then, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
This article originally appeared in Issue 30 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here.