Not long ago, Newcastle-based streetwear retailer END. Clothing revealed its intentions to stand fast on the front lines of the war against bots, with its new "Launches" system that was touted as bot-proof. The announcement was widely covered across the blogosphere, including here on the e-pages of Highsnobiety, as the latest in a string of bulletins signaling a call to arms within the retail industry.
In the past year or so, brands as well as retailers have been rallying against the use of bots during online sneaker releases, not limited to Supreme, Nike, adidas and other smaller retailers. The battle is waging on, and while sneakerheads are often S.O.L. when release day comes around, stores and brands are still seeing their stock fly off shelves faster than is humanly possible.
Bots Made Easy
To understand why this is happening, we first need to understand what a bot is and how it works.
First, some websites already write their own "bot code” of some sort. Used as a programming tool for quality-assurance purposes, this is known as acceptance testing. These bots are operated internally by the online stores themselves to run a suite of tests every time the site's code is updated, making sure the store is running in top shape.
Essentially, the bot enters the front-end of the store, runs an automated add-to-cart scenario and then checks out. This is done to make sure there will be no technical problems with the site once the product is actually released. One of the most common tools for writing codes meant to evaluative a script in this way is Selenium, which isn't positioned as a bot tool for buying sneakers, but can easily be used to automate such a task.
This test is exactly how bots are abused by others to gain "backdoor" access to sneaker releases. While bots are usually hundreds of lines of intricate code that keep changing and evolving, others use as little as 10 lines of code to defeat an e-commerce backend that may have cost months of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create.
The reality is, there is no secret black market where bots are bought and sold, companies like AIO Bot and NikeShoeBot plainly purvey their services, advertising which websites - from renowned sneaker boutiques like Concepts and Hanon, to bigger names like Foot Locker - are supported.
The Bot Plot Thickens
Bots complete these commands in mere microseconds, far faster than any human could select an item and add to cart. Interestingly enough, one particular measure taken by Supreme was to automatically block any order that didn't dwell at checkout long enough, assuming these orders were placed by bots. Unfortunately, the New York brand soon encountered an unexpected problem: some Supreme veterans were simply insanely quick at checking out, causing the temporary system to reject their orders. With the impending online-only release of Supreme's new Air Max 98 pack, it will be interesting to see how the New York skate giant handles things.
An even deeper problem than this, however, comes when the product is pre-loaded onto a given site a few days ahead of its release. This allows bots to find product IDs for each size and automatically add the product to cart before the release. The only step left is to head to checkout when the product is finally launched.
Software engineer and sneakerhead James Murphy, reveals, "I can tell you with 100% confidence, any non-lottery site is bottable. Sometimes even finding the link for the purchase is easy with a bot, for example with YEEZY Supply and MR PORTER, or sometimes you just need the bot to click around, in the case of Supreme."
Any e-commerce page hosted with Shopify is notoriously easy for bots to hook into, but your favorite sneaker stores aren't the only businesses being victimized, as it's been widely reported that bots of a more complex nature have been used to infiltrate Ticketmaster since 2011, and even in the stock market, through a method called "high-frequency trading."
Nike Leading the Way
The fact of the matter is: the problem is only likely to become worse. Any e-commerce framework that operates on a "first-come, first-served" basis is a perfect target for bots, as computers are indisputably faster than humans at clicking. In a word, as long as people pay resell prices, bots will rule.
The only true way to block out bots is by implementing a lottery or raffle system that requires pre-entry information such as shipping details. For YEEZY drops, adidas is using a system similar to this, although even the Three Stripes' e-commerce setup is susceptible to "backdoor" access. In the past, the "add to cart" URL found on adidas.com was located by bots, which allowed people to figuratively jump the queue. These links were then sold for hundreds of dollars. It remains to be seen if adidas is able to combat this method for future YEEZY releases, but for now, you can view the entire YEEZY product list here.
Even though some sites speak of "leveling the playing field for genuine sneaker fans," as of now the only system that is truly bot-proof and crash-proof is Nike's SNKRS, which is in many ways perfect because payment is entered ahead of time, and Nike charges you automatically if you win.
It seems like the Swoosh has presented the only viable answer at this point in time. As the situation evolves, however, new and more innovative solutions will be required to truly regulate how we are buying sneakers. Here's hoping every retailer can win the battle against our robot overlords.