The existence of automated bots in eCommerce is nothing new. Many people, including myself, rely on online shopping to purchase essential and non-essential items. However, if you desire a product that’s in high demand, you can probably forget about it because thousands of bots have likely wiped out all the inventory. So, where does that leave us? Well, at the mercy of the resale market, where you’re now confronted with paying exorbitant prices for what used to be an affordable item.
However, the issue of shopping bots extends beyond the next hottest apparel or electronic device. It can also impact the goods and resources we depend on for survival, further exacerbating the digital divide between the wealthy, and basically, everyone else. For instance, let’s take a look at the PlayStation 5 game console.
The PlayStation 5 was released on November 12, 2020, costing $500 and $400 for a digital edition. Today, due to a combination of high demand and an international chip shortage, consumers can expect to pay $1,000 or more on StockX, including other reseller sites. Similarly, seconds after the launch of Nvidia’s PC gaming system, the entire stock “was sniped by bots, with a sprinkling of the odd lucky person,” according to BBC.
HOW DO SHOPPING BOTS WORK?
The Business Insider defines a bot as a software application that expedites the online checkout process and helps resellers nab hyped-up sneakers in seconds – including limited edition drops and collaborations. Most bots require a proxy or a primary server that disguises itself as a different browser on the internet.
According to the BBC, the most advanced shopping bots are all-in-one solutions that spot the deals and automatically check out. In other words, you don’t have to camp outside or wait patiently online for companies to drop their Black Friday deals because a bot will do that for you.
How Do you acquire a bot?
The Business Insider explains that most bot makers release their products online via a Twitter announcement. Some private groups specialize in helping their members nab bots when they drop at retail. These private groups will use other bots to access more advanced bots that cost a few hundred dollars after the release.
How much does it cost to be a member of these private groups? The BBC shares that membership to these exclusive groups can cost tens to hundreds of dollars. Currently, there are bots on sale for thousands of dollars. The article poignantly points out that bots have become so expensive and limited that most people have to rent them now.
GROWTH OF THE RESALE MARKET
For those in the resale market, the future has never looked brighter. The secondhand apparel market is currently valued at $28 billion and will reach $64 billion in five years. The resale market grew 25 times faster than the overall retail market last year, with an estimated 64 million people buying secondhand products in 2019.
Essentially, you can quit your job and live well by purchasing products at retail prices and reselling them for some astronomical amount. And if people are desperate enough for an item, they will buy it from you regardless of the cost.
The Socioeconomic Impact of Shopping Bots
The issue of shopping bots is much bigger than buying a new pair of Jordan’s, a handbag, or a new game console. At the beginning of the pandemic, we witnessed basic human survival instincts, and many people bought more than needed to prepare for the unexpected. As a result, we saw empty shelves inside brick-and-mortar stores and sold-out notifications online. Personally, I could not find a bottle of Clorox to save my life. The chart below illustrates a surge in interest in shopping bots or Amazon bots in the past year.
The high demand for shopping bots combined with an unregulated resale market can become an enormous problem that could deepen inequality in the US. In a Harvard Business Review article, nearly half of Americans without at-home internet were in Black and Hispanic households. Additionally, 40% of disconnected K-12 students from Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities struggle with insufficient digital literacy, language obstacles, and other disincentives to use the internet. Unfortunately, this reality provides little motivation for companies to end shopping bots despite the potential adverse impact on our economy.
In closing, the presence of bots is becoming increasingly more sophisticated. The insidious and malicious nature of bots on social media alone calls for companies to do more to block bot operators. But until consumers and congressional leaders apply more pressure on these companies, the presence of harmful bots across our digital ecosystem will accelerate and permanently damage the social fabric of our society.