But the proliferation of online shopping makes it even tougher to purchase coveted items because of software that snaps them up as soon as they are offered for sale.
“If it’s popular, it’s going to be taken by bots and resold,” said Omri Iluz, the co-founder and chief executive of the cybersecurity firm PerimeterX, in a phone interview.
The bots work by constantly pinging retail websites, searching for sales and analyzing URLs.
The moment an item is in stock, the software runs through the checkout process at a speed that is “completely inhuman,” said Mr. Iluz, whose company protects large retailers and other organizations from bot attacks.
The bots are drawn to scarce items “like sharks to blood” and use web-scraping techniques to guess the ID of an unreleased product, PerimeterX explains on its website. That allows scalpers to buy products before an official sale becomes public. Bots can also subscribe to online notifications of sales and bypass purchasing limits set by retailers by using multiple internet addresses.
Laura Oliver, who blogs about deals on her website, A Frugal Chick, has been keeping tabs on Fingerlings, the brainchild of the company WowWee, for months, and notified her readers on Facebook whenever she found a retailer that had them in stock.
It was an all-consuming job.
“I have had dreams about Fingerlings,” she said.
On Amazon, Fingerlings priced at $15 will sometimes last as long as 25 minutes, Ms. Oliver said.
“They are the only one that if I throw it up on social media I feel like my people have a chance to get it before it disappears,” she said. “I’ve had readers comment that they’ve put the Fingerlings in their cart on the Walmart website and when they go to check out, it’s gone.”
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.
Toys “R” Us says on its website that Fingerlings are available in its brick-and-mortar stores. When asked about the cyber bots, the retailer declined to comment, referring instead to a statement from Christin Fernandez, vice president for communications for the Retail Industry Leaders Association that said retailers and suppliers “are working around the clock to make sure American families have access to the season’s hottest items” and are “committed to taking precautions to mitigate fraud and illegal transactions.”
Amazon said Tuesday that it monitors bot buying activity, and attempts to limit the purchase of high-demand products.
Target has also taken measures to deter resellers, said a company spokesman, Eddie Baeb, “including quantity limits for purchases and technologies designed to help us monitor and prevent reseller activity.”
Other hot toys, like the Barbie Hello Dreamhouse, the L.O.L. Surprise! Doll and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System NES Classic Edition have also sold out, but are appearing on Amazon and eBay advertised at prices several times higher than retail.
“The entire ecosystem breaks down,” Mr. Iluz said. Bots are making legal purchases, but they don’t become loyal customers, and they won’t leave positive reviews.
And customers get frustrated.
“When an advertised item is unavailable because of out-of-stocks, customers don’t blame bots, they blame the retailer,” Roger Beahm, a professor of marketing at the Wake Forest University School of Business, said in an email.
On Sunday, Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, asked retail trade associations to take action.
“When it comes to purchasing products online, major retailers should put forth policies that will help prevent future Grinch bots from stealing the season’s hottest toys,” he said in a statement.
Unusual purchases ought to raise a red flag said Angelo Roefaro, a spokesman for Mr. Schumer.
“Say there’s a suspicious order placed — for example a massive quantity at extreme speed — they should be able to have some human intervention in that transaction and potentially block the sale,” Mr. Roefaro said in an email.
David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said in a statement Monday that the federation shares Mr. Schumer’s concerns, “and we look forward to working with him and all interested parties to strengthen enforcement against bad actors and take away the tools being used against innocent consumers, particularly during the holiday season.”
Mr. Schumer co-sponsored the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, or BOTS Act, which was signed into law last December, and is targeted at online ticket scalpers. The law makes it illegal to bypass ticketing website security measures, and would fine hackers who seek to circumvent the system.
Ticket-scalping bots were partly responsible for the “Hamilton” ticket shortage and also snatched up tickets for other shows that were in high demand, like a U2 concert where a single scalper bought more than 1,000 tickets in under a minute, according to an investigation by the New York State attorney general.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who also co-sponsored the BOTS Act, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he aimed to introduce new legislation to combat the “plague” of bots that buy up toys, sneakers and other popular retail items.
“I think if there was a specific law it would encourage and empower the Federal Trade Commission or criminal investigators to go after them, and we might learn more about them and identify some of the specific culprits,” he said.
For parents who were left empty-handed after searching for popular toys, there are still plenty of gifts out there that children will love — like Magna-Tiles or the Hatchimals that were so hard to find last year.
The yearly rush to buy the hottest toy is often guided by emotions, Mr. Beahm said.
“Sometimes it’s important to remain a little more rational in our purchase decisions,” he added, and to remember the fate of fad items like the Beanie Babies, which are now “practically worthless.”
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