To have a conversation about sneaker bots first requires us to go back a couple months. It’s 11 p.m. on Feb. 18 in the cramped living room of a Lawrence, Kansas apartment. Tensions between two college students run high as a downpour of keystrokes punch in shipping addresses and payment information hundreds of times with the menace of a deadline that marches closer.
What’s driving this beehive of activity is a new sneaker release the next morning at 8 a.m. Kanye West, a Grammy award-winning rapper and producer, has created his own sub-label of Adidas shoes and the latest model is here.
The students’ intention is to buy as many pairs as they can at retail price, then turn around and sell in a massive resale gray market that Forbes Magazine has valued at $1 billion. The substantial resale profit margin comes from the $200 per pair retail price ballooning to $950-$2,000 per pair and the steady clip at which they sell. Restocks rarely occur, so pairs also keep high value and demand as well.
While this situation is on the very extreme end, it is becoming the norm within the sneaker community as well.
Hypebeast reported how in-person purchases of sneaker releases are becoming a safety gamble that raises concerns with authorities. Brick-and-mortar retail locations no longer sell many coveted releases in a traditional manner because of the safety concerns that come with thousands of rabid buyers camping for days outside of stores. Instead, they require prospective buyers to line up in droves outside to pick up raffle tickets that could grant them the chance to purchase just one of the few pairs allotted to each location.
The Internet removes this liability risk from retailers so the usual first-come, first-served policy endures online.
So, as in all endeavors, where there’s a will there’s a way. Entrepreneurs with computer-know-how have begun to develop web-based applications and bot programs that aim to minimize the need for human intervention in checkout processes, decreasing the time it takes to complete a transaction.
Sneakerheads that want these shoes end up having no choice but to either buy these programs or pay the steep resale price. Companies like Adidas and Nike won’t increase supply significantly as it benefits them to have exclusive, in-demand products that retail partners can quickly move off their shelves.
This intense combination of supply-and-demand economics with intense cultural hype has driven many to see no other option but to start purchasing the newest and most capable bot that can increase the likelihood of a successful purchase.
The only thing mitigating the effects of bots are efforts by retailers to create changes to their websites that stymie that ability of bots to function but as is true in so many instances, this is only a temporary solution.
Within the sneaker community the whole situation creates a series of questions that can spur some reflection. Product releases have taken on a new meaning. The amount of people who are buying for personal enjoyment and those capitalizing on an opportunity is becoming more and more equal and creating shifts within the culture.
Kevin Pritchard, 21, is a Lawrence native who has loved sneakers and collected since he was a young teen. He also runs a small resale business.
“I used to care about drops and getting stuff for myself, but when bots got big I just started buying for resale and maybe for my girl if she likes something . . . it’s becoming a bigger deal to just buy pairs just to flip them,” Pritchard said.
What Pritchard also worries about is that the hype for anything related to sneaker culture is creating a bad experience for retail customers as well.
“Kylie Jenner is selling a lipstick now, and just because that’s in the same space as sneakers and these brands, you have bots for those too and people trying to flip all these products,” he said. “It makes it so much more expensive, you gotta buy the bot, and then the product – or you gotta pay resale.”
The resale market is creating a problem where even if brands restock products, it still has a damaging effect. “It’s just not as cool, like it blew up and lost what mattered most which is it being about personal taste and not hopping on trends,” Pritchard said.
But automation has an effect that is twofold. On one hand, it can give the little guys an advantage to get a release for themselves and be protected from horrendous resale prices, but on the other it created a means for individuals to buy products in bulk.
“I get the feeling that a lot of shoes aren’t going to ever be worn because so many people just go for pairs that aren’t their size and can’t sell them so they just sit,” Pritchard said.
Some people feel differently about it, though.
“If you can make some money and get your pair paid for out the profits then by all means do it” said Will Bradley, 23, another Lawrence native who sells a bot program.
He said the main point was that the nature of the game had changed and it was just something to adapt to.
“Everyone has a bot, so it’s no different than when everyone’s browser got jammed up on release day and some just got lucky,” Bradley said.
Local programmer Dustin Schwartz highlighted a major security concern with bots, though.
“So the big thing I’m seeing is that yeah, you could put something in there, in the code that could be bad. You’re giving this program access to your browser and possibly other parts of your machine” Scwhartz said.
The issue of bot programs invading a marketplace and changing it in this manner is not new at all, though.
Over the last decade third-party vendors to secure massive quantities of tickets to high profile concerts and festivals have used bot programs. The problem became such an issue that New York Senator Chuck Schumer and the state’s Attorney General have vowed to crackdown on these vendors and independent scalpers
This creates a situation where legal precedent could be set to go after bot programmers and resellers alike.