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The wild world of sneaker buying bots (2017) (vice.com)
70 points by cjg 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

A lot of the major sites now use lottery systems. You have 10 minutes to enter the lottery and your enter time doesn't affect outcome. You could fiddle with % by having multiple entries, but you'd need a unique credit card per entry.

I'm pretty big into sneakers and have found the bot game to be really interesting, and how companies are fighting it by removing "first-come first-served" is a rational response.

What’s the draw for being so into sneakers? Do you resell them to make money? Wear them? Collect them like stamps?

I used to write sneaker bots “professionally” (was pretty much my full-time job) back in college. Did it for a variety of reasons.

The money in reselling is decent but you can usually make more by selling the software itself. I collected a few rare pairs and definitely found that fun. Also highly ego driven and there’s an entire “sneaker Twitter” community where people just want to show off.

I was mainly into it for the software engineering side of things. You end up having to build really interesting/complex software. My infrastructure was basically half a dozen servers with a coordinator that would scrape websites all day long. Also had to learn how to exploit different features of websites to speed things up.

Generally enjoyed it but the community is pretty toxic. Mostly driven by money and ego, no room for collaboration because it’s more profitable to keep things to yourself.

Selling shovels to gold miners basically. Nice. Can you explain how you find people to sell software too and how realistic your value prop is? It doesn’t quite sound logical to me (and maybe it isn’t?).

Your software finds margins of x, but surely only so many people can make use of it before it stops working for anyone.

Mmmm you typically limit releases of your software for exactly this reason. Best model so far has been subscription based with a limited number of total subscription. I’ve seen it generate a huge amount of revenue (upwards of 300k annually).

It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the total number of bots in circulation relatively low. Helps that genuinely good software is difficult to write and most people doing that work are young/inexperienced - huge advantage to anyone with a strong softeng background.

I think the bots are being used to buy the sneakers from direct sales channels (Nike, Footlocker, primary market sources) and then you'd flip them on the secondary market. Basically the direct channels will sell the shoes at "reasonable" prices but well below what the secondary market is willing to support so you can walk out the door and immediately sell them for 2X+ what you paid.

You see similar things in rare craft beer releases.

Hey kfichter, care to share what your stack looked like? Did you use any public libraries (e.g. BeautifulSoup)?

Same as collecting anything, stamps, action figures, classic video games. There's some intrinsic value (wearing them on your feet), a story to each item (and possible emotional connection), and then the resale value.

Marketing by Nike. Have you noticed how many pop culture figures wear Nike and Converse (mostly Chuck Taylors) which is owned by Nike? That's no accident.

I think it's also a demographic trend. Many of the releases are re-issues from a time when we were kids and wanted to wear the Jordans / Pennys / Grandmamas / Ewings we saw on TV but couldn't get our parents to spring for them. Now we're older with disposable income and, although expensive, for the most part they aren't crazy expensive. I mean, a pair of decent dress shoes cost more than my Tinkers... but nobody has ever stopped me on the train to tell me how dope my oxfords are!

Collection value mostly, rarity plus vanity.

> but you'd need a unique credit card per entry

What could go wrong?..

Aside from the obvious stolen CC#, there are legitimate services that provide you with a disposable per transaction card number..

privacy.com & other sites that provide disposable CCs are typically banned

I’ve worked on ticket touting legislation for my own Parliament for two years now. It’s surprisingly complex and naturally has an unsurprisingly monied lobby funding opposition.

I find the parallels here very interesting and the suggestion from the first comment that a lottery could be deployed for all who purchase within the first X minutes. Maybe that’s the way forward for tickets too.

I agree with the parallels. I disagree with the solution.

It seems to me both markets have a producer retailing a product far below the market clearing price. A 3rd party is thus stepping in and claiming that unclaimed value.

It seems to me that the producers hold all the cards needed to put the 3rd parties out of business. They can increase prices, or supply. Why don't they?

I've heard accusations that musicians are getting kick backs from touts, which suggests that the touts are basically scapegoats. The question then becomes why people don't think it's reasonable for these producers to raise prices. That view is kind of understandable for musicians, they are 'artists' not in it for the money, although why their fans would begrudge them more money or why the artists wouldn't want to perform more for their loyal fans I don't know.

In short it's a strange market dynamic, where nobody actually seems to be honest about their motivations.

Musicians generally want to make money but, like most market participants, they're not short-term income maximisers.

Musicians are concerned with their reputation. They want to tour (though some don't) but not burn out and also need time to work on new material and recording. They want to play the best possible gig. That means sell-out performances with the most devoted fans, not the richest ones. It means venue matched to the type of music.

Venues and promoters are in similar positions. Auctioning tickets to the highest bidder could be short-term profitable but in the long term it's a disaster.

The parent is working on legislation.

If you want that long list of things, and can get it, good for you. Does it then follow you can demand legislation to protect that?

Then there's the question of what a devoted fan is. Surely if they only wanted devoted fans they'd site the concert somewhere out of the way. The South pole perhaps? That would sort the touts.

Edit: And a final point, my experience as a fan would be much improved if I could reliably go out and buy say 4 tickets for me and my friends, any friends because i don't know which will be free, and if only 2 can make it, sell 1 to someone else that would like to go.

It's great that you're looking into legislation. Touts are annoying. I've lived in Hong Kong for a while, and once lost my iPhone. Getting a new one from Apple was basically impossible, because everything for open sale was snapped up immediately by very long queues of people paid to stand in very long queues and pick up 2 iPhones, which were then slipped over the border to go on the Chinese gray market.

I ended up paying some inflated price at a dodgy computer centre (as the alternative would have been to take out another 2 year phone service subscription).

However, I believe you that regulating this appropriately is complex. I'm not sure, for example, what Apple could have done better (beyond their 2-per-customer-limit, apart from raising prices or magically producing more). Lotteries might be one way (and that's what Apple did later in HK, I believe).

(And, BTW, cool to have a MEP here :-)

Are you going to ban drugs, alcohol and selling sex too? If people sell items at below the market clearing price someone will buy it and sell it at its true value.

I have a friend that is all into this, mostly as a hobby. There's also a Funko Pop market as well. Really, if there's high value behind it, there's an arbitrage market that goes along with it.

It's pretty big, there's markets for residential IP lists, bots that mock organic web traffic by browsing Google and watching YouTube so they can defeat recaptcha, there's even escrow services so that you don't have to sell out of your house.

There's groups that track potential high value product releases and coordinate large buys. It's mutually beneficial for them to work together, because unauthentic demand boosts the resell market.

I don't know if I approve of it, because groups work out large fandoms and potential demand, and effectively price out segments of the population to take a cut off of the top. But I do have to sit back and marvel at how much technology and research goes into neutering antibot measures.

A friend of mine is making thousands per month simply selling notification bot subscriptions to people who run private discords. His don't even buy, they just send stock notifications to the rooms. Madness.

Yeah - I like to say that I did my time in the sneaker world. It’s extraordinarily profitable but it’s also extraordinarily toxic. I’ll probably end up writing something long-form about it.

Biggest thing that you wouldn’t know looking in from the outside is that bots can only get you so far. Bots for well-known sites are basically at their theoretical limits. Bad server-side software basically makes it random whether you’ll actually get in at that point.

Information is what really determines whether sneakers are going to be profitable or a complete waste of time. I ran with groups of people who had relationships with employees of all the big sneaker manufacturers (primarily Nike and Adidas). I’d know months in advance what was going to release and, perhaps more importantly, what was going to re-release (causing the price of existing pairs to crash).

People belonged to strong (and private) groups. Never too big, ~15 people was the max for the really good ones. Usually you’d have a slack channel with a ton of integrations, anywhere from simple in-stock notifications to full bot integrations that would allow you to buy sneakers with a saved credit card by tapping a button on the notification (so much for PCI compliance).

Those groups are difficult to access. You have to build up a reputation before you have a chance, most of the good ones will literally interview you. You’d pretty much be blacklisted if you leaked information. Overall it’s a lot like cracking culture if it suddenly became 100% legal.

I used to make/sell these bots back when I was in high school in the early 2010s. It was a great way to learn programming and make some money flipping sneakers on the side. The bot scene was in its reaaal early stages so I had a lot of fun catching up as Nike (nobody cared about Adidas at all back then) kept trying different types of lottery systems and captchas to figure out what would stick. Learned early on that notification systems were the best way to go.

The strangest thing for me is that there are a lot of children in this market who are interested in sneakers. Where did they get that amount of money?

My nephew (12) did about the closest thing I've ever seen to the "paperclip to yacht" economic path. Some relative gave him $100 as a holiday gift a few years ago. He used it on some silly collectible monkey T-Shirts, and sold some of them to a classmate at a profit. The idea stuck, and he leveraged that to buy some shoes (not limited release, just relatively rare/desirable), and learned how to eBay them. Nowadays he has just under $10k US, and spends a lot of time chasing weird hypebeast-esque fashion drops for immediate resale.

I'd be judgemental and go all "kids these days" on him if only it wasn't so lucrative for him. Sure, it's not that much money relative to an adult's earnings over a couple of years, but he's 12. My sister (his mom) worries he won't learn to appreciate savings and frugality as he never had an allowance before doing this. Me, I think he'll do just fine.

Yeah, my son was kind of getting into this stuff a couple of years ago, he's 17 now. When it first came on my radar and I started to ask him about it I had the same thought... kids these days.

Ironically, when I asked him some more questions about how the sales worked and he explained things I then told him he should write a bot.

That's an insanely good skill to have. Not a full time gig but a dependable side gig you can do from pretty much anywhere.

Your nephew sounds like an incredibly cool young man. Good work to your whole family!!

At this point reps (fakes) get so close to the real thing I couldn't imagine spending the money on the real thing unless you were collecting them. If you want to wear the shoe, why not just buy a 1:1 rep instead and save hundreds.

Who wants to buy a fake?

are you supposed to wear these? or put them on a shelf? or seal them in a plastic bag like magic cards?

It's a collector's market, so the answer is, err, yes.

Some buy them to wear; some buy them to put them on a shelf; some buy them to seal them and resell them down the line.

A lot of people will wear them if they're buying the bots. You may be looking at 600-1000$ resale, so buy the bot for 200 and shoes for 200 and you're still under if you bought them resale.

If you also get a legit pair, then you could sell to make money.

Buy three pairs so you can wear one, put one on a shelf, and loan one out to friends?

Reminds me of when I wrote a bot to buy Supreme gear when I was still a student. Got a fair bit of desirable stuff, most of which was sold at a nice margin.

Why aren't producers auctioning those newly released sneakers?

The dynamics that make sneakers valuable collectibles are not governable. A lot of the "value" is probably generated by dealers, scarcity, sell-outs and such.

If they tried to capture all the value by auctioning, they might sink the whole thing.

Yeah I think it's more like a market of collectibles such as Magic cards. If they auctioned off the best ones it would kill the surprise element to acquiring them.

Buyers don't just want the rarest sneaker, they want to win at a game of being in the know. Taking the arbitrage in-house would ruin that.

Why don't the manufacturers raise the price to meet demand?

If you raise prices until only the amount of people left wiling to buy matches the limited supply of the shoes then sure you've married supply and demand in a textbook sense, but you've removed the fever-pitch generated by everyone clamouring for the shoes at a price point just attainable to a larger audience that will rarely buy them. The pandemonium caused is a driver of the demand.

If you're running a shoe company, the hype helps build brand support as well. Have a wide audience means that people are interested and engaged in the brand, because hey you could get a lotto ticket pair and make yourself a bunch of money. Sneaker culture is so strongly tied to hip hop culture, which has a really strong DIY-attitude to it, so making it hyper-elitist from the outset would short circuit the whole thing.

You're totally right, that part of the value of these shoes to the company is the commotion they create in the market as everyone scrambles and pays attention. Then if someone can't get the limiteds, they'll settle for the dope looking regular release (which is still sold at insane margins for the company).

A few reasons. People don’t like paying $600 for a pair of shoes because nice ones are usually $100-200. Feels better to get ripped off by someone on the internet than by Nike.

More importantly, the fast sellout times create hype, which just further drive the market. These companies will make more money in the long-term because people will keep coming back to get one of these shoes that “no one else has.” Trick is that the companies do eventually flood the market

And why aren't these damn cows perfectly spherical?

Or even better, why not auction them? This way you get a perfect price for each pair.

Because if companies started auctioning off products (limited or not) people would get up in arms because the company is "completely profit seeking".


For Nike in 2014, it was $28 a pair to make. They are getting plenty of markup.

They'd also lose brand good will because people would stop trying to buy if the auctions prices were out of grasp.

This world is really wild. Some people stay in big lines to buy pair and then resell it. Hope it's really worth it.

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