How Scalpers Caused PS5 Stock Shortages

Scalpers may have had a bigger impact on PS5 shortages than some people previously thought.

PlayStation 5
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The PS5 stock shortage can be attributed to a variety of factors (not the least of which are complications caused by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic), but when it comes to looking for someone to pin this situation on, there are few villains easier to despise than PS5 scalpers and resellers.

It’s easy enough to look at photos of scalpers hoarding PS5s and feel a sense of outrage, but there’s always been some reasonable doubt regarding how much of an impact these resellers actually have. There are some who suspect that scalpers are little more than a few people who managed to beat the system.

However, new information regarding the methods of these reseller groups suggests that the problem is actually much bigger than that.

According to a report by Business Insider, reseller groups in the UK have managed to hoard thousands of PS5s so far. The manager of one of those groups informed the publication that they’ve acquired over 3,000 PS5s so far through both pre-orders and retail purchases.

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How is that possible? Well, as you may suspect, their methods primarily involve the use of “bot” software that allows them to quickly purchase multiple items without needing to manually complete the checkout process. More importantly, it allows them to circumvent safeguards that would typically prevent individual users from buying more than one of an especially popular item.

Actually, understanding the extent of this problem requires you to appreciate that these resellers aren’t just targeting video game consoles. They develop and refine botting software in the hopes of bulk purchasing any hot items, especially if they’re already going to be released in a limited quantity. One of the resellers even told Business Insider that they purchased large quantities of hot tubs earlier this year when they noticed that they were becoming more popular after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone who has tried to purchase new sneakers as soon as they’re available will almost certainly be aware of the impact of resellers, as that market has been overwhelmed by bots for years now.

While these bots can obviously bulk buy items that could have gone to individuals rather than resellers, the extent of their impact goes further than that. Because these bots swarm a retail site whenever a hot item like the PS5 is made available, they often cause those sites to crash for the majority of people. What’s especially frustrating is that bots are often able to circumvent those crashes and continue shopping.

So what are major retailers like Amazon and Walmart doing to combat bots? Common defensive tactics include the use of “Fingerprinting” tactics designed to detect bot programs, behavioral recognition software, and advanced log-in requests that are harder to automatically circumvent.

The problem is that the reseller market is lucrative enough to incentive bot developers to work year-round on ways to circumvent these safeguards. For instance, modern bot software can actually replicate the browsing patterns of human shoppers so that they’re harder to detect. As resellers informed the Business Insider team, the game these days isn’t about making the fastest bot but rather creating bots that are just slightly faster than most humans could ever be.

If there is a solution to this problem, it will likely require cooperation between major sellers and retail sites to at least find a way to better manage the release of major items that everyone knows are going to be targeted by bots. For now, though, resellers will likely continue to target PS5s and Xbox Series X/S consoles until sometime later in 2021 when Sony and Microsoft expect to be able to better meet demand.

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For the moment, we can only advise that you sign up for as many retail alerts as possible while we all wonder how many of those reported PS5 and Xbox Series X/S sales actually belong to resellers and bots.