A hot potato: Some of the largest retailers in the country including Walmart and Target are deploying technology to try and thwart automated bots that scan websites for in-demand products and purchase them faster than humanly possible. But why should they even care?
The issue, which existed before the pandemic to a lesser degree, has only been amplified as of late due to supply chain shortages. In November, online shoppers were met with out-of-stock messages 258 percent more often than compared to just two years ago according to Adobe.
Seizing an opportunity, many have turned to these automated bots to buy up inventory and resell it for a significant profit on third-party platforms like eBay, and even locally through Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Others are turning to bots in hopes of being able to fulfill their holiday wish lists.
With highly sought after items like video cards and game consoles selling out in minutes, many others are either left empty-handed or have to dig deeper into their wallets to pay inflated prices.
Chuck Bell, programs director at Consumer Reports, likened bots to viruses, spam or robocalls. Others may not view the issue as quite that extreme, but coming up with a solution to level the playing field for all buyers has proven difficult thus far.
Walmart last year said it blocked 20 million bots in a 30-minute span that were trying to scoop up PlayStation 5 consoles on its site. Target told the Financial Times that it is continually improving its tools and tech to track and block bots.
Others, like Columbia Business School Professor Mark Cohen, don't believe there is much retailers can do to about the matter. "It's an unfortunate situation, but it's one which really doesn't have a remedy until normal services and supply becomes back in balance," Cohen added.
Cohen is probably right, and really, what incentive do retailers have to actually try and curb the use of bots? At the end of the day, they're selling inventory at record speeds. What happens to those goods after they've made a sale is beyond their scope of concern. They've made their money. Goal accomplished.