It’s been over a year since Microsoft and Sony kickstarted the ninth generation of gaming consoles with the release of the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5. Yet if you’re hoping to nab one this holiday season, be warned – over the last year, newly-released, big-ticket gaming items have only grown in demand and become increasingly short in supply.
There are several contributing factors at play here, including the global chip shortage which has impacted every industry. But the most irritating, by far? Bots.
Those Pesky Bots
Over the years, bots have become a growing issue as retailers have moved from brick-and-mortar shops to an online model. In 2021, it makes sense that Xbox Series X consoles and PS5s are being sold primarily online.
Shopping bots, (commonly referred to as bots), take advantage of this, using an automated system that keeps tabs on a slew of website pages for retailers once a specific product has been restocked. There are a few different types of shopping bots, but the most common one is aimed at purchasing high-demand products automatically by keeping tabs on a litany of web pages.
The second a restock happens, whether it was announced by the retailer or executed surreptitiously, bots are programmed to immediately purchase on your behalf, bypassing any hassle of a page crashing. Bots have become so desirable over the last year, particularly as a tool to get the latest consoles, that there are communities dedicated to teaching newbies to create them.
If this sounds deeply unfair to the average consumer, it is. This is why you might have seen some retailers put up inventory for a PS5, and the stock sells out instantly. What’s more, these shopping bots are legally allowed in the US to perform these specific tasks. Not even the Bots Act of 2016 can help, as it only outlawed bots from being programmed to purchase digital tickets; other purchases are mostly fair game.
Scalpers have also taken the opportunity to use bots to try and jack up the price of highly desirable and hard-to-find items. Take a look at the prices of PlayStation 5s, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch OLED consoles on third-party reseller sites like eBay and you’ll get the idea (and this doesn’t even take into account that some of these listings might be scams in their entirety). In February, data engineer Michael Discroll posted a series of reports on the scalping marker, noting that at the time, 10-15% of all PS5s in the United States have been resold with scalpers estimated at the time to have amassed $43.2 million in profit.
To make it sting all the more for those trying to buy consoles the honest way, there are plenty of pictures and listings floating around online that show scalpers flexing about the mega haul of PS5s and Xbox Series X consoles they acquired and are now selling at an inflated price. In short, trying to get a console is currently stacked against the average consumer, and it’s extremely frustrating.
Here’s What Retailers Are Doing About It
Despite the number of bots getting away with inventory, there have been some measures taken by retailers in an effort to better your chances of buying a PS5 or Xbox Series X this holiday season. The leading third-party retailers selling these consoles in North America are Amazon, Best Buy, GameStop, Target, and Walmart. Each has its own restocking methods with some variances, but the restock patterns differentiate between the retailers.
Amazon tends to be the least likely to restock out of the three. Most of the time, the restocks are available to any customers, although there have been a few rare instances when it made PS5s and Nintendo Switch OLEDs available through its Treasure Truck program or through Prime. Amazon did not respond to IGN’s request for comment in regards to how it combats bots or what its official stance was on alleged botting activity regarding the latest gaming consoles.
Best Buy restocks consoles more frequently, selling a mix of bundles and the consoles by themselves. In recent months, Best Buy launched a virtual queue that has you waiting “in line” for a console. While the system is vague with no sign of estimated wait times or where your spot is in line, it does help alleviate spamming the F5 key. More recently, Best Buy has begun restocking locked behind a paywall with its Totaltech membership, an annual membership that costs $200. Now, the membership itself does have some interesting perks but buying this membership only to get better odds of buying a console is probably not the wisest decision, as it jacks up the price you would be paying for any console ranging from $400 to upwards of $700. Best Buy did not respond to IGN’s query of how it was fighting shopper bots.
GameStop, like Best Buy, restocks the next-gen consoles frequently, particularly the Xbox Series and PS5s, but be warned that GameStop constantly bundles both consoles with extra items that increase the retail price. However, a $14.99 GameStop Pro membership allows customers to buy select bundles on a certain day or time, with a heads-up usually a day in advance, though GameStop has also done restocks that do not require a paid membership. GameStop did not respond to IGN’s request for comment on how it will handle shopping bots playing the grinch this holiday season.
At 10am CT, we’ll be opening up early access to a limited number of PS5 console bundles on our website to PowerUp Rewards Pros first!
— GameStop (@GameStop) September 28, 2021
Target is a bit more irregular with restocks, though it did recently restock the recently released Nintendo Switch OLED model. While not a ninth-generation console like the Xbox Series and PS5, it is a Switch model refresh and in a great deal of demand. Target does have a rewards program in the form of Target Circle, which is free to join, but so far the retailer has not done any type of restocks specifically for those that have the membership. “We’re focused on making it easy for guests to find and get the items they’re looking for at Target,” a spokesperson for the retailer told IGN. “We have many measures in place to protect our website from bots and continually enhance our tools and technology to track and block common bots.” Unfortunately, it appears that when Target does have either a console in stock, bots are still managing to dominate the majority control of the inventory.
Walmart has the best odds of offering a consistent restock, though the restocks appear to struggle with botting activity. Walmart does restock the console more frequently and at the same time as previous restocks, which is 12pm PT / 3pm ET (on irregular days). In recent weeks, it has been locking its restocks behind an exclusive perk to its Walmart+ membership. Out of the other retailers, Walmart is the only major retailer to be completely transparent with its customers about how it is publicly cracking down on bots. In December 2020, Walmart noted how it was taking additional steps to curve bots. While botting is still a problem, Walmart has been open about doing its best to detect and block bots; claiming it consciously updates its bot detection tools to block many shopping bots from buying up console inventory when it is restocked. Unfortunately, those using bots have been very public about sharing their successes.
As mentioned above, a lot of these retailers listed above have locked restocks behind a certain paywall. While these paid membership services can provide an advantage against fighting bots because scalpers and bot owners would need to spend money buying one or more memberships. But these are general retail memberships, and it makes more practical sense if you are a frequent shopper at the retailer and not someone just buying one to nab a console.
But What About The Console Makers Themselves?
Of course, third-party retailers are not the only ones selling these consoles. If you do not want to buy from a place like Best Buy or Target, you can always try your luck at the direct websites of the official console makers (Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony). While console maker’s restocking widens the pool of reputable companies selling these consoles, it’s not completely perfect.
Microsoft restocks its Xbox Series console regularly on its official website, though the Series S is still a more straightforward console to find most days than the Series X (it does not sell any bundles of the consoles.) But advanced shopper bots have been dominating the restocks for third-party retailers, including Microsoft’s official website. Recently, a Microsoft restock of the Series X was dominated by a scalping bot ring, with inventory selling out before those looking to actually buy the console had a fair and fighting chance. It does not help the fact that Microsoft does not give users with an account a heads up for when restocks are bound to happen. When asked about the alleged botting activity, Xbox told IGN it “doesn’t have anything to add.”
PlayStation handles console restocks better, giving customers more of a fighting chance. Similar to Best Buy’s queue system, the official PlayStation website has a security measure to prove you are a human, followed by a queue to add the console to your cart. The queues even have an estimated waiting time. To help PlayStation fans better their odds of securing a PS5, Sony has also sent out invites via email for a chance to buy a PS5.
As the holiday season approaches, Sony is still accepting applications to buy a PS5 directly from its website – all you need is PlayStation Network ID to sign up. The emails come by way of a marketing email and can be easy to miss, but Sony’s invite-only approach does help get those that actually want the console a better chance of buying one ahead of the holiday season. PlayStation did not respond to IGN’s request for comment on how it’s fighting bots.
Nintendo does not restock its consoles as frequently as the others. Though it is currently easy to get your hands on a Nintendo Switch Lite and regular Nintendo Switch, the same cannot be said for the OLED Model, which launched last October. While Nintendo has done some restocks of the console, it has sold out fairly quickly.
“Our goal is to manufacture enough systems to fulfill demand so that we can satisfy as many consumers as possible,” a Nintendo spokesperson told IGN in an email when asked how they would combat bots and ensure as many fans would have a chance to buy its current flagship console. While Nintendo has previously said it would not be prioritizing the manufacturing of the Switch OLED model. The company told IGN it will try its “best to meet the demand for all of our products, depending on the current situation and any challenges related to shipping and supply chain management.” Though do not expect Nintendo to prioritize Switch OLED production over the other two models. Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa told Bloomberg earlier this month that although the chip shortages will be an issue to a point that recovery is not expected to happen soon, it will not focus solely on prioritizing resources on its current flagship.
It is important to keep an eye on retailers’ plans this holiday season. There are also various accounts that have become go-to’s for following restocks, whether it is certain individuals on Twitter like Wario64 or Matt Swider, or accounts keeping tabs on inventory who stream s on YouTube or Twitch. And hey, if you choose to forgo a new console and instead pre-order The Steam Deck, Valve’s portable gaming PC, Valve has circumvented the bot problem with its queue system. . While most people won’t get theirs until next year, its reservation system is still open and requires a $5 deposit to guarantee your chance to buy one when it’s ready for you.
It is not impossible to buy these consoles. Certain queue systems are efficient compared to locking these items behind a paywall or no security measure at all. But the reality is you have to be vigilant; we wish you the very best of luck.
Taylor is the Associate Tech Editor at IGN who’s been keeping tabs on PS5/Xbox Series restocks for over a year (despite having both since launch). But is only doing it so she can help others get one of these new consoles. You can follow her on Twitter @TayNixster.