Christmas last year was frustrating for many people. No, not because we were stuck in homes, unable to see our families, but because many of us didn’t have a shiny new console, be that PS5 or Xbox Series X, to spend all of that blissful alone time with. Since the consoles launched last November, retailers around the world have had problems getting machines into the hands of customers.
This would be a frustrating experience if the retailers’ websites worked smoothly and simply said “sold out” when stock ran to zero, but the actual experience for many prospective Playstation or Xbox owners was worse: broken websites and virtual queues, followed by the grim sight of scalpers posting photos of their console haul, and offering to sell them on in exchange for your first born.
So how did it get so miserable? And how can retailers do it better next time there’s a must-have gadget where demand massively out-strips supply?
The Bot factor
One of the reasons the PS5 launch was particularly grim, was because of the widespread use of bots - computer programs that automatically try to snap up consoles as soon as they go on sale, before real humans even have a chance to reach for their credit card.
“I think they were caught a bit off guard due to the number of factors that were going on,” says Thomas Platt, a scalper bot expert at e-commerce firm Netacea.
“You've got COVID, which meant this drop [release] was bigger than it was ever going to be. You've got all the shops shut, and the drop happened in the Christmas period, which is the busiest time of year. So I don't think retailers, apart from maybe the specialist ones had their eye on this during this sale.”
So how much of an impact did scalper bots make? According to Platt, “hundreds” of these sorts of bots are currently available on the darker corners of the web, and only a handful of them need to be used to make a big impact on a retailer.
“Let's say a retailer in the UK is ready for 10,000 people to shop on their site right now. They could have scaled their website up thinking the PS5's is going to drop so we need to cope with 20,000 people,” says Platt.
“The problem you have is one or two bots can quite often equate to the same amount of pressure on that website as 10,000 people if they're done in a particularly aggressive fashion.”
This means that when you’re getting frustrated by error messages and virtual queues, it could conceivably be the work of just a couple of scalpers.
And here’s the scary thing: Scalpers are getting smarter. One example of this is the rise of so-called “Residential Proxies”, that use the connections of unwitting internet users to disguise a bot making a purchase.
“You might have an app on your phone, and you think it's a free app, you think it's great, but what you didn't know is you gave away a small little bit of your bandwidth to a provider,” explains Platt, “And what that provider will do is they'll use your IP address for 10 seconds a day, 20 seconds a day when you're not on your phone, and give the IP address to a bot.”
So to the retailer, instead of looking like a bunch of bots all coming from the same server, the web traffic just appears to be normal people browsing the web.
“They can really distribute and hide themselves in those networks,” he says.
Platt also says that during the PS5 launch, his company saw scalper bots using infected and compromised - illegally hacked - computers for the first time.
“What it did is it turned those machines to try and purchase PS5s. And they tried to make a million requests to purchase within about an hour on a customer's site.”
For high profile launches or ticket sales, demand is always going to outstrip supply. This means that we may have to sit in a virtual queue, hoping that eventually the internet gods will smile upon us. So annoyingly then, it turns out that even when queuing, scalpers may be playing tricks.
“We built a first-in-first-out queue,” says Platt, of the queuing software built by Netacea, “We wanted to make sure that the first person that gets in the queue is the first person who gets it.”
The problem is that not every retailer’s queue does this. Some randomise the order in which queuers gain access to the store, which inadvertently helps the scalpers as it just means their bots can join the queue lots of times and may get lucky, instead of having to wait and hope with all of the humans. Even worse, apparently some of the most common queueing software packages used by many retailers have known bugs that scalpers are aware of, and can use to skip to the front.
The arms race
So how can the virtual shopping queue be made better? How can retailers make future launches less annoying in the future? How can they tackle the bots and make it less nightmarish?
“Don't tell the world that you're launching your console at 10 o'clock on Tuesday, just don't do it because then you set yourself up to fail,” Platt says. Instead, retailers should keep the exact launch date and time secret until the moment it happens, so scalpers won’t be able to plan to bombard a retailer at a specific time. “When you do have the stock, send an email out to your marketing database and tell them,” he says. So don’t be surprised in the future if you’re asked to sign up to a mailing list to get your hands on whatever the hot new gadget is.
The next line of defence is bot detection tools like the ones made by his company, which can analyse the incoming web traffic and look for users who are not behaving as humans do, and are instead behaving like bots.
And then once the orders are in, retailers need to weed out the scalpers, so stock can be redirected to real customers.
“A lot of retailers are doing this right now,” Platt says, describing how retailers will look at sales that have come in, and check that the same credit card or postal address has been used to order multiple units - and if someone looks sufficiently dodgy, they’re not getting their order. And sometimes, retailers will even fight back and try to wind up the bots, by telling them that their dodgy orders were placed successfully - while actually not intending to fulfil the order at all.
Ultimately though, the annoying truth is that there is no easy solution to the nightmare of high demand shopping, whether you’re buying a PS5, tickets to Glastonbury, or anything else where too many people want something that is in finite supply. Whenever the retailers get smarter, the scalpers get smarter too - and it is the retailers who make the least effort who suffer most.
“It is 100% an arms race,” says Platt, “For a lot of the retailers, if they just put in some of these basic steps, then the bots are going to go and focus on another site that isn't bothering.”
Ah well, here’s hoping that the PS6 launch goes a little more smoothly.
- Still struggling to get a console? Here's where to buy a PS5 (stock permitting)