By Brian Fung, CNN Business
A few days after Christmas, Aaron Worley and his wife began feeling ill.
Fearing they may have contracted Covid-19 over the holidays, Worley, a 32-year-old quality assurance tester from Las Vegas, joined millions of other Americans in a desperate search — “rush mode,” he called it — for rapid test kits that were evaporating from store shelves. Every place he tried was sold out.
Then Worley looked at his Twitter feed. An account he followed known as Wario64, which normally focuses on restocks and deals on video game consoles, had just blasted out a link to Walmart’s website, where an undetermined number of Covid tests were now back in stock for around $20 apiece. Clicking the link, Worley rushed to place an order in hopes of beating out the masses — and was rewarded moments later by a Walmart confirmation email. Winning the supply-chain lottery felt surreal, Worley said, even if Walmart later had to cancel his shipment due to other inventory issues.
“I’ve never been a gambler, but I can absolutely say there’s a thrill to getting something that you know seconds later will be gone,” he said. “It’s almost indescribable. It’s the opposite of FOMO [the fear of missing out]. There’s a huge dose of serotonin the second you get that ‘order completed’ screen.”
Worley is one of a growing number of consumers who’ve turned to a mix of social media sleuths and dedicated product-tracking services for an edge in the exhausting, demoralizing experience that is shopping for almost anything during the pandemic. Manufacturing delays, labor shortages and shipping disruptions have contributed to difficulties finding many in-demand products. And for some of the hottest items, the problem has been exacerbated by profit-seeking scalpers and bots that snap up scarce supplies before ordinary people can get their chance.
Where people once fought over luxuries like concert tickets and Supreme drops, now they’re fighting for household essentials and medical supplies. The grayed-out “purchase” button on websites everywhere is emblematic of a consumer era when virtually everything is at our fingertips, but also perpetually just out of reach.
In response, a small but dedicated community of programmers, journalists and social media content creators has sprung up to announce whenever a retailer such as Amazon or Walmart have restocked, or “dropped,” more product. Over the course of the pandemic, these stock hunters have devised ever more sophisticated methods for learning about impending drops earlier and earlier — and for notifying what has become a loyal following numbering in the hundreds of thousands for some accounts.
Demand for their services is so high, some have transformed stock-hunting into a full-time job, earning a bit of cash every time a user clicks an alert or pays for a subscription feature. Every in-stock notification acts as a dinner bell ringing across the internet, prompting a mad scramble as shoppers try to shave precious seconds off their efforts to secure a Covid test, a game console or a popular children’s toy. For many, it’s even become its own form of entertainment.
“Just getting the gaming console is kind of a game in itself,” said Marc Holgate, founder of the tracking app HotStock.io.
As long as supplies remain tight, the incentive for shoppers to turn to these tools will continue to grow. And the more people flock to these tools, the harder it may become for other shoppers to avoid using them for fear of missing out on an important shopping advantage.
The rise of professional stock hunters
What many widely followed stock hunters have in common is that they began as ordinary consumers themselves, looking for a coveted item.
Matt Swider, a New York-based technology journalist, had been searching high and low for a PS5 last February when he was finally selected for a chance to buy one from Sony’s virtual queue — only to be met with an error message when he submitted his American Express credit card. The error message wouldn’t go away, even when he tried a Visa card. Helplessly, Swider watched as his 10-minute window to make a purchase ticked to a close.
“So I tweeted about that,” he said. “‘Don’t try [American Express], anybody,’ at 21,000 Twitter followers at the time.”
Sony made another batch of PS5s available the following day. Swider tweeted about that, too, and he got a few messages from followers thanking him for the tip. A few days later, the queue opened again. Each time Swider told his followers of an opportunity to get in line, he attracted more followers — 100 one day, 1,000 the next. A year later, Swider — who quit his old job as the US editor of Techradar, a tech blog — now talks to more than 1 million Twitter followers about restocks of game consoles and graphics cards.
And his followers talk back. Swider estimates that he receives 2,000 Twitter messages a day. On a home computer setup stretching across six monitors, Swider will usually sift through about 1,000 messages per day.
Some of Swider’s most valuable tips come from these followers, many of whom, he said, happen to work at Best Buy or Target and have inside knowledge on when a drop is about to occur. In journalistic fashion, Swider describes these as his most trusted and reliable sources. Out of the thousands of messages he gets every day, a tiny fraction — perhaps five, he said — will contain useful information about an upcoming restock that he can vet and develop into an alert.
“Everyone from managers to heads to low-level employees will reach out to me, saying, ‘You helped me get a PlayStation 5, and I want to help others,’” Swider said. Sometimes, Swider also swaps tips and discusses scammer activity in a private group chat for fellow restock accounts he started on Twitter last year.
In December alone, an average of 16,000 people per week clicked on Swider’s links to game console restocks. Swider declined to say how much revenue he earns from affiliate links, but he said that is only one of the ways he hopes to earn a living from stock-hunting. Swider also runs a newsletter for tech deals and product reviews on Substack called The Shortcut, which launched last November and has 100,000 subscribers — some of whom are free subscribers, and some of whom pay $5 a month or $50 a year. Swider said his goal for 2022 is to expand into coverage of other electronics such as mini projectors and devices from Samsung and LG.
Swider isn’t the only one looking beyond gaming products. The stock-hunting community has increasingly focused on tracking a wider range of consumer goods, including toys, hygiene products and fashion items. Face masks and toilet paper have been popular items, for obvious reasons. So have Pokémon cards; Jordan- or Yeezy-branded shoes; toys from the children’s show “Gabby’s Dollhouse”; a minifridge shaped like an Xbox Series X; and the Death Star Lego set, just to name a few.
Increasingly sophisticated technology
If Swider’s strategy depends primarily on shoe-leather reporting, others in the community take a more technical approach.
At first, many began with simple programs that mimicked, in an automated way, what a live human would do: Load up a retailer’s website in a browser, then look for an add-to-cart button. Most of the time, the button would be grayed out and inactive. But if the button changed color to reflect a restock, the program would blast a notification to its Twitter followers or on messaging apps like Discord.
While that basic method is still widely used, some stock hunters have since adopted more advanced tactics in a never-ending bid to shave seconds off of reaction times.
StockDrops, a stock-hunting community of 125,000 that organizes primarily on Discord, can peer directly into Best Buy’s product database using the retailer’s publicly available API, or application programming interface. As soon as the StockDrops program detects a change in Best Buy’s inventory, it sends an alert to subscribers — no browser scripts necessary.
Enrique Morell, the creator of StockDrops, is a full-time physics graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara. He usually gets up to attend classes or do schoolwork from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. But as soon as he’s finished, Morell throws himself into coding for StockDrops and works through the night.
The project employs a dozen volunteers, primarily to moderate the online social space that’s built up around the tool. The small-time nature of the project has forced Morell to turn down some popular requests.
“We’ve been asked to track Pokemon cards, that’s a hot market,” Morell said. “We’ve been asked to track Barbies. … We’ve been asked to add auto-checkout features. We’ve tried it a bit, but I’m not happy with it. It’s very complicated work, and something that doesn’t really fit with our volunteer jobs.”
HotStock, meanwhile, is trying to get ahead by using artificial intelligence to predict when an item is likely to come back in stock. Holgate, the founder, is based in the UK and said the app has benefited from nearby Cambridge University, which produces a steady stream of job candidates with degrees in machine learning and AI.
“There are certain clues we can detect, based on previous stock drops,” Holgate said. “We can predict a drop before it happens so that we can notify people.”
“Everyone’s doing it a different way,” he added. “There is no standardized way. It’s easy to get into doing this, but it’s very hard to do very well.”
Like some other stock hunters, HotStock has direct business partnerships with some retailers, including Amazon and Best Buy, that will give HotStock a heads-up when a drop is incoming. Holgate declined to say whether or how much he pays for the partnerships, and declined to provide specific audience figures for the app, but said HotStock has seen a “significant amount of growth in the past year and a half” and has millions of users.
Amazon, Best Buy and other large retailers did not respond to requests for comment on their relationship with stock-hunting services.
Beating the bots
The growing sophistication of stock-hunting apps and accounts is a direct response to the rise of bots, automated programs designed to swoop in on drops faster than real people can place their own orders. Many of the bots work on behalf of price-gougers who, taking advantage of high aftermarket prices, seek a profit by flipping high-demand goods on platforms like Ebay or Amazon.
Bots and scalpers are a problem that retailers themselves have spent months battling, with mixed results. The problem is even on Congress’s radar: In November, ahead of the holiday shopping season, a group of Democratic lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced a bill to stop what they called “Grinch bots.”
Some retailers have introduced digital queues to slow down the checkout process. Others may sell popular items as part of larger product bundles that contain less desirable items scalpers can’t resell as easily.
A Walmart spokesperson said the company is committed to giving customers “a fair chance to purchase the items they want.” An online queue, along with early access to items for paying Walmart+ subscribers, helps manage the supply of products, the company added.
“Our cyber security team continues to work with tech, product and business teams to understand the demand and timing for inventory drops and how we can add a level of security to address bot traffic while maintaining a positive shopping experience,” Walmart said in a statement. ”We also audit purchases and cancel bot orders if we find that they have completed a purchase.”
But, Holgate said, bots and scalpers are getting worse, not better. When retailers roll out one countermeasure, the scalpers work to circumvent it, resulting in an endless game of cat and mouse. And, he said, consumers get squeezed in the middle.
Though stock-hunting tools sometimes rely on similar technology and principles as the scalpers, the stock-hunters CNN interviewed said they are nothing alike.
For one thing, they argue, stock-hunting services don’t make actual purchases like bots do — they just tell users about drops and leave consumers to make the purchases themselves (though some acknowledge that scalpers could be using their own tools against them).
For another, scalpers operate on a completely different scale. According to Morell, some scalper groups charge hundreds of dollars for access to their tools and communications, whereas StockDrops, HotStock and similar services are free and run on donations, optional subscriptions and affiliate link revenue.
As a result, Morell said, scalpers “have way more money to spend on development to beat you on speed [and] on reverse engineering” the retailer websites.
A new culture emerges
In addition to helping people find products, some of these stock-hunting services can also help people find something more meaningful.
StockDrop’s Discord server began as a place to get restock notifications, but it has since evolved into a social hub, with separate chatrooms for discussions on music, politics and even fast food. Some members have met up and become friends in real life, Morell said.
But perhaps no one embodies the soul of the restock community like Jake Randall, a content creator who has built an audience of 175,000 subscribers on YouTube and 388,000 followers on Twitter since 2019. To listen to Randall talk about his audience is to get a peek into what may be one of the most wholesome corners of the internet.
Randall suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic illness that hampers the body’s breathing and digestive systems. In a video pinned to the top of his YouTube page, Randall says he initially thought the progressive disease would kill him. But in 2019, a new treatment gave him renewed hope and more energy that allowed him to start streaming on YouTube. Much of Randall’s content shows him sitting before a computer with multiple browser tabs pulled up, documenting his (and his followers’) attempts to leap on console deals when they arise.
In an interview, Randall seemingly could not help but gush for minutes at a time about his viewers, many of whom came for tips about PS5 restocks but stayed for the community he had built. The live chat beside his videos is often filled with messages of thanks and well-wishes.
Toward the end of one marathon 16-hour livestream, Randall said one woman left a chat message saying she’d been trying unsuccessfully to buy an Xbox for her cancer-stricken son.
“I saw that message and I just knew in my heart that I didn’t need mine,” Randall said. He looked up the woman on Facebook and offered her the Halo-branded Xbox he had claimed. But she refused to accept unless she could pay him for it.
As they were talking, other viewers in the live chat had been donating money to Randall on the woman’s behalf so that she would not have to pay out of pocket. Rather than accept the donations, Randall decided to redirect the money to the American Cancer Society. Other people in the chat then donated to the organization, too.
For Randall, the experience is representative of what the job has become. What began as a way to help others get through a pandemic-fueled supply shortage has turned into much more — a way to find the humanity in other people as he battles his disease.
“It’s nothing I can take credit for,” he said. “I feel so lucky that these people with good hearts find me. I feel like I’m the one getting so much help.”
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