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How bots are shaping the sneaker industry

Jay Halvorson talks about which shoes in his collection have never been worn. Forum file photo1 / 4
Jay Halvorson discusses a mosaic he commissioned for his Fargo apartment that is made from an actual sneaker. Forum file photo2 / 4
Feb 17, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; While wearing the Nike LeBron 16 "Watch the Throne," which released Feb. 17, 2019, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball during the 2019 NBA All-Star Game at Spectrum Center. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports3 / 4
Jay Halvorson opens a sneaker storage trunk custom built to emulate an Air Jordan shoe box Monday, June 4, 2018, in his north Fargo apartment. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor4 / 4

FARGO — Buying sneakers isn’t what it used to be.

The days of visiting a shoe store the day of a long-awaited release, waiting in line to grab the right size and interacting with a salesperson are seemingly a thing of the past.

Stores such as Foot Locker and Finish Line generally don’t carry the flashy, heavily sought-after sneakers in stores anymore. Today’s headline-worthy kicks are primarily released via online drops after being hyped up and teased for weeks by social media pages and websites or blogs.

Similar to the process of shoe product releases, the buying experience has become an entirely different beast. Simply going to Foot Locker’s website or the Nike SNKRS mobile app and attempting to manually place shoes in a virtual shopping cart won’t cut it anymore. For one to even have a prayer at landing the hottest releases, the assistance of a bot isn’t so much an advantage, but a necessity.

The way these bots work is quite complex, as explained by the article “How Sneaker Bots Actually Work” on Medium. To put it simply, a bot buys things for someone. The second a product — in this case a sneaker — launches online, a bot will grab said product, place it in the cart and check out faster than humanly possible.

This creates an uneven playing field for sneakerheads, concertgoers and others who don’t own a bot and hope for a shot at landing exclusive shoes or tickets to see their favorite bands.

However, using a bot, or “botting,” comes with a price. Some of the more affordable bots cost $300 to $500, while others can run into the thousands of dollars — and the more expensive, the better the success rate.

People who buy bots to land coveted sneakers aren’t strictly collectors seeking more display pieces for their closet. A common practice for botters is using the tool to land several pairs of an exclusive shoe and then flipping most pairs on a resale platform, such as StockX.

In the Deadspin article “Who’s Killing the Soul of Sneaker Culture?” freelance writer Casey Taylor uses the Nike SB/Concepts Purple Lobster Dunk Low release as an example. In the story, he states the Purple Lobster drop was “by all accounts, botted to hell.”

Acquiring 15 pairs of the Purple Lobster at its retail price of $130 would cost $1,950, which is no light shopping spree but could offer a hefty return worth the investment. All sizes of Purple Lobsters are now selling for more than $300 on StockX, so if one pair is kept while the other 14 are resold, that investment could turn into more than $4,200.

Asset or detriment?

While much of the online narrative around bots is that they’re a blemish on sneaker culture and some companies are trying to bot-proof themselves, some shoppers are happy to pay for and benefit from this digital tool.

Jay Halvorson, a sneakerhead and owner of Texas Q BBQ and Catering in Fargo, has amassed his assortment of rare kicks with the help of a bot.

“It’s a good deal to be able to have the bot system,” Halvorson said.

He cited the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend, which had massive releases Feb. 15-17. Drops from those three days included signature styles across the Nike, Jordan and Under Armour brands of current and former NBA stars, including Kyrie Irving, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry. The weekend also featured restocks of five of rapper and producer Pharrell Williams’ signature Adidas Human Race shoes.

Halvorson said on a weekend like that, with several big drops and spikes in online traffic on a site, the bot comes in handy.

“Websites are crashing before you’re able to get on them, he said. "Having a bot is nice because you don’t have to worry about it. The money comes out of your account and it’s off to the next thing.”

Others, such as Taylor, the author of the Deadspin article, are on the other end of the spectrum. He said his first reaction when he discovered bots was disbelief, followed by a shrug. After looking at what’s happening in the sneaker marketplace, he figured it was somewhat inevitable.

“When there’s money to be made, people will innovate ways to give themselves an advantage,” Taylor said in an email.

“I don’t think anyone who buys sneakers because they like to wear them likes bots, but I’m sure the people using them successfully to make a living are pretty happy they exist," he added. "But if you’re not reselling, you hate bots because every bot hit means one more pair of shoes that someone is going to have to pay aftermarket prices to actually get to wear.”

A market problem?

Botters aren’t the only ones facing blame for the current state of the sneaker market. Some believe the hype leading up to exclusive drops is what creates the need for bots.

“Really what it comes down to, it’s the companies that hold the shoes and the hype behind them,” Halvorson said. “They don’t want to fix it; they want the hype.”

Rather than building up excitement for limited releases, Halvorson would like to see shoe companies release more units.

“Nike thinks, ‘If we make too many, we’re not going to make as much money.’ Look what people are doing with these shoes… (They should be) released at a higher level and bring down some of the hype,” he said.

As long as the buildup remains high and number of units released remains low, the market will continue to stay where it is, bots will be claiming 15 pairs of impossible-to-get shoes at a time — and botting will be all but necessary to secure the hottest kicks.