- Sneaker bots are controversial software programs that nab hyped pairs in seconds.
- Retailers and footwear makers like Nike and Foot Locker are fighting against the disruptive tech.
- Despite the pushback, both sides of the bot war think bots will always persist in some form.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
There’s a war brewing between footwear retailers and the resellers who want to sell their products for a pretty penny.
At the center of this clash are “bots,” or pieces of software that expedite the online checkout process and help resellers nab hyped pairs in limited edition drops. Bots provide a distinct advantage to their users by letting them order multiple pairs of sneakers online before stock is depleted — bypassing a site’s one pair per customer rule.
As a result, bots regularly have a devastating impact on footwear retailers’ websites, which are flooded with the technology during high-heat releases of Air Jordans, Nike Dunks, and Yeezys. During these drops, websites like Foot Locker, Finish Line, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, among others, are often overwhelmed by the software and experience site crashes.
With the sneaker and streetwear resale industry expected to hit $30 billion globally by 2030, more people are looking for shortcuts to cash in on the lucrative market and potentially make millions. But now, retailers are fighting back to preserve consumer trust and keep bots from dominating every release.
During an all-hands meeting with Nike’s North America team on March 8, CEO John Donahoe said that Nike is looking to audit its product launch process and work on anti-bot technology to rebuild trust with consumers, Complex reported. The meeting followed the sudden resignation of Nike’s vice president and general manager for its North America division, Ann Hebert, after a report highlighted her ties to her 19-year-old son’s sneaker resale business.
While Finish Line and Dick’s Sporting Goods did not return Insider’s request for comment, Foot Locker Inc. — whose brands include Champs, Eastbay, Footaction, and Sidestep — also said that the company is aware and is concerned about botting technology.
“Delivering great products to our consumers is a top priority for Foot Locker and we recognize that sneaker drops are key moments in sneakerhead culture,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to Insider. “We are always actively working to enhance the consumer experience, are investing across our platforms, and are committed to getting the best product to more of our customers.”
How to fight a bot
Sneaker bots are often created by former sneakerheads and self-taught developers who make a killing from their products. Insider previously spoke to the developers of Splashforce, Adept, and Hayha, all popular sneaker bots available on the market that were each created by teens without any formal coding experience.
Most bots require a proxy, or an intermediate server that disguises itself as a different browser on the internet to allow resellers to purchase multiple pairs from one website at a time. Each of those proxies are designed to make it seem as though the user is coming from different sources.
“They’re very advanced now in the way that they operate,” said Jason Kent, a “hacker in residence” at cybersecurity firm Cequence, which helps retailers fight bots on their sites. While Cequence develops programs to mitigate the impact of bots, Kent acknowledged that bots are constantly evolving and learning how to circumvent anti-bot technology.
To have a chance at success, anti-bot companies need to think like their adversaries.
Cequence, which works with companies across the food and beverage, beauty, fintech, online dating, and footwear industries, uses machine learning to analyze data from each footwear drop and determines the best way to prepare for a future bot attack on a site. This technology helps the company determine suspicious transactions on different websites, such as multiple similar email addresses or IP addresses from one user.
In this way, the bot war often transcends reseller versus retailer and boils down to a battle of technology: the “good” bots versus the “bad” bots. Machine versus machine.
As Kent explained. “It’s not as much a vicious cycle as it is an arms race.”
And in this tech war, the anti-bot faction, comprised of footwear manufactures and retailers, is not going down without a fight.
Bots are here to stay
Despite the resistance against bots, sneakerheads and bot users bots believe the technology is here to stay.
“It’s a cat and mouse game,” said a high-level sneaker botter and YouTube creator who goes by the name Botter Boy Nova, an alias. “If a platform makes a change to their anti-bot, then the bot developers would be trying their best to solve the puzzle, basically.”
Nova is also a part-owner of Notify, a major sneaker cook group, where he said members often collaborate to adapt to new changes in the anti-bot scene.
“It’s always changing,” Nova said, “So any information that you get today might not be the same information that you get next week, or it might not be correct by next week.”
Another experienced bot user and sneaker reseller Jamaal, or “MaallyMall,“ explained that while only three bots work against Nike’s anti-bot on its app and website, the company will likely never be able to fully eradicate the bot issue as long as people are determined to game the system.
“I’m sure there’s tech that can reduce it,” said the sneaker collector and content creator who co-hosts a YouTube sneaker show. “Ultimately, the bots and programmers find a way around it.”
While Kent says that certain tech updates have mitigated “a very high percentage” of bot attacks on his clients’ sites, even he knows that Cequence or the industry reaching a point of total protection is unlikely.
“I’m not sitting in a chair and saying that they’re never going to get around us,” he said.
As such, the arms race continues to wage. And neither side is afraid to get dirty. While bot makers work to game the system from the outside, Cequence uses fake identities to infiltrate and gather intel from sneaker bot forums on Discord, a messaging platform that has become popular among the reselling community.
Kent said his researchers use false identities to avoid any direct clashes with the sneakerhead community. He recalled an instance where one of his researchers received death threats from resellers after he was identified on Twitter.
It’s a problem that stems from the nature of the business his company is looking to thwart. Bots, while a hindrance to footwear retailers, are gold mines in the hands of a capable reseller.
“15-year-old kids that make $200,000 selling Nikes don’t want you to stop that,” Kent said.