Sneaker Bots Part One: What is a Sneaker/Shoe Bot? [UPDATE 2021]

The article was updated on 25 March 2021.

In the first of our four-part sneaker bot explained series, we’re untying the luxuriously priced laces wrapped around the sneaker (shoe) bot phenomenon to find out what makes this industry, and the bots that facilitate it.

In modern retail, limited edition merchandise represents an opportunity to build brand awareness while keeping loyal customers happy and on the hook.

Think, Adidas and Kanye West, H&M and Kenzo, even US retailer Target and Google are forming a partnership. The aim is to create hype, drive customers to stores and websites and generate lots of lovely sales.

However, as most of us will have experienced, getting in the queue (either literally or virtually) at your favourite store on the day of an eagerly awaited release doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll lay your paws on the goods. They’re snapped up in the blink of an eye. But how?

What Are Sneaker Bots?

A sneaker bot, also known as shoe bot, is a highly sophisticated piece of software designed to aid in the purchase of limited availability stock.

As the name implies, sneaker bots often target sneakers, but the concept remains the same for any product with a limited quantity. They are rampant, often buying most of this precious stock in seconds, leaving real customers frustrated and the retailer’s reputation in tatters. Sneakers are a perfect vehicle for reselling because of the prestige and scarcity that comes with wearing them, which is why they’ve become targets for bots.

And we haven’t even touched on the considerable stress and strain they put on a website’s infrastructure. The sheer volume of sneaker bots can bring a site to its knees, to the detriment of day-to-day customers and revenue.

How Do Sneaker Bots Work?

Sneaker bots are designed to buy items in bulk, which has a number of deleterious effects. When you come across an item that is limited edition or hard to find, the website will often set limits for how many people can purchase it at once. As soon as those limits are reached, any other visitors attempting to purchase the product will be met with error messages and time-outs while their browsers try unsuccessfully to load pages from the site. Sneaker bots break these rules by refreshing web pages until they see an available quantity on hand and pressing “buy” repeatedly before human customers have had a chance even one page loads. This behavior not only hogs inventory but also causes severe lag times when trying to use certain websites.

So why put such vast quantities of effort into acquiring special sneakers (or trainers depending on which side of the pond you land)? It all comes down to cold, hard cash, with Cowden & Co estimating in a recent report, that the sneaker resale (shoe botting) market is worth an impressive $2 billion, a figure that is projected to triple by 2025.

The Rise of Shoe Bots

Over the last two decades, the likes of Nike, Adidas and New Balance have developed cult followings of Sneaker Heads, who avidly follow the launches of retros, new colourways and collaboration sneakers.

The brands have created a stream of endless demand, with their own-brand designs serving the more dedicated customers and collaborations with celebrities driving a mainstream demand. This culture has been amplified by the emergence of new, limited-edition clothing and footwear brands such as Off White and Supreme.

It is in this high demand environment, that the entrepreneurial sneaker reseller can make astronomical profits with a little help from their bad bot friends.

Take, for example, the launch of Supreme’s Box Logo sweatshirt on 8th December. Supreme’s founder Samuel Spitzer, tweeted that the website had received 986,335,133 page views and 1,935,195,305 purchase requests. That’s nearly 2 billion attempts to purchase that, due to the low number of page views, can be directly attributed to bot activity.

Are Shoe Bots Legal?

As a relatively recent phenomenon, there are currently no laws against using bots.

There is currently no law against using automation software to buy products online. However, as retailers become increasingly aware of shoe botting and the bad bot tactics used to swipe their merchandise out from under the noses of real customers, many have introduced terms prohibiting the use of automated bots into their website’s T&Cs.

It’s likely that the ticketing industry will be the first to introduce tighter controls around bot use, with anti-ticketing laws already in progress in the US and the UK.

How Can Retailers Combat Sneakers (Shoe) Bots?

Many retailers have attempted to block the use of sneaker bots, with varying degrees of success. One method for combating this phenomenon is through implementing a CAPTCHA system, which makes it much harder programmatically to purchase sneakers and other restricted items from online stores.

Another way retailers are fighting back against this wave is by utilizing browser cookies – pieces of data stored on your computer so websites know who you are when you come back or login again.

The only downside to these methods is that they prevent real customers from purchasing limited edition products as well.


Coming up in Part Two – Preview

So far we’ve had a think about what these bots are, how they work and their rise to power. But what security measures does your business need in place to protect the real customers and your revenue?

In Sneaker Bots part two, we’ll be lifting the lid on your Yeezy shoebox to discover how you can detect and prevent the sneaker bot threat.

If you’d like to know more about sneaker/shoe bots and bot management itself, contact our team of data scientists today.


Sneaker Bots Explained – Blog Series