At the start of the original COVID lockdown (which was ages ago now), when all the stuff I normally do became suddenly unavailable, I decided to search out a copy of Ring Fit Adventure for the Switch. Much to my chagrin, I found this a lot more difficult than I’d envisioned; I’d tried to buy it when it first came out many months before and found myself unable (Nintendo’s problems with limited stock are well-documented), and surely the pandemic had spiked interest, but stock levels were strangely low everywhere. Bear with me, this is going somewhere.
Everywhere, that is, except where it was being resold at painful markups by resellers – alternative Amazon listings, eBay posts with seemingly limitless quantities, random people on Facebook selling untouched, boxed versions of the game, and so on. I set up a stock alert and after quite some time managed to secure a copy from a reputable seller, with many checkout order failures and swear-words along the way. With the Switch having been heavily resold both at launch and at the onset of the new plague, the spectre of the cyborg menace hung heavily over my purchase.
I’m now considering my the first big PC upgrade since I built my aging i7 4770K/GTX 780Ti machine about 7-8 years ago – and if you’re into your PC components you can tell how well that’s going. Even Stockinformer alerts have yet to rescue me from the pain of trying to get hold of a 3060Ti or 3070 for within a reasonable distance of RRP. It’s tough to outcompete both automated purchases and hundreds of other potential normal buyers, even with increases in protections against the most aggressive bot buyers. I also like to have a current-gen console kicking about, but have entirely given up on that until after the Festive Period™. Even the world of tabletop gaming hasn’t totally evaded 2020’s storm of reselling chaos, with Games Workshop’s strategy for its Indomitus box taking a sharp turn after availability problems.
Even normal, reputable electronic retailers like Currys, Ebuyer and Overclockers.com have been cranking up prices (though this has been easing a bit recently with increased stock levels). With the pandemic, just about everything that can be purchased and resold at a margin is getting the scalper treatment – is this just how things are now? As the chap interviewed for that PCMag article says, anything designed to stop bots will stop humans as well.
Of course, maybe this is just the world of reselling catching up (with a bit of acceleration through circumstance) with the world of tech. After all, scalping is virtually synonymous with the world of ticket reselling, which has also become infinitely more irritating in the digital age. At least the (somewhat weird) people selling tickets at massive markups just outside a concert’s gate had some sort of value-add, in that they stood outside for hours selling tickets ‘at the gate’ for sold-out shows. Of course, they contributed to the sold-out-ness and it’s daft to show up without a ticket, but at least they were doing something. I don’t think even the most trenchant reseller defender could argue that they’re adding any value they’re not first taking away, buying hundreds of tickets and then selling them back to fans.
Ticket-selling giant Ticketmaster faced enormous controversy a couple of years ago when it turned out they owned a few of the sites that automated scalpers were using to resell at massive margins, effectively taking a cut twice at cost to fans. They now allow reselling through their own platform (with a cap on prices). If bot operators are going to target the show circuit, doesn’t it make sense that they’d turn their eyes to the tech world too – especially in a year where shows have become rarer and rarer?
So the questions remain: what is to be done, and are retailers doing enough? Without the hard data, how much retail unavailability is driven by mass bot purchasing and how much is driven by standard stocking problems remains a bit of a mystery. As I saw in a heated argument on Reddit, opinions are split on retailers bumping prices up, and without seeing the accounting you can never really tell if it’s malicious or just in response to increases in manufacturer pricing. I’d be tempted probably to go with a bit of a mixture – they’re pricing to meet the demand, with a little bit of extra cost to them as well as suppliers do the same. Driving up prices would also reduce margins for resellers (for better or worse) and enable more stock to get into the hands of ‘genuine’ customers. Many storefronts are now instituting ‘one per customer’ rules, captchas, and bot-detecting magic pages that hold me in place for 10 seconds (not sure how they work, really), but from the consumer end how effective they are at deterring the automaton hordes is questionable.
Can a legal approach be taken? The UK made ticket tout bots illegal a while ago. Given how easy it is to evade measures on these websites, it’s hard to tell how effective it’s been. However, even if Parliament were to move on UK-based scalping, it would take quite a while, and it’s probably not a matter of priority in between other things going on right now (Brexit, the plague, collapse of society, etc.). Disgruntled consumers are even trying to take matters into their own hands, though I can’t imagine this being much more than a nuisance for resellers. The only compelling argument I can think of is that this proves the necessity of physical retailing in some form or another, a sorely lacking aspect of the hardware and software markets this year.
If you were trying to build a PC, or buy an Xbox or PS5, and you asked me for advice (for whatever reason!), I’d say be patient. Wait until stock levels return to normal – it isn’t worth the stress, or the risk of making an impulsive decision. I nearly bought a 3060Ti for £480 before rapidly cancelling the order, realising I’d just paid out way over RRP. Stay strong, resist the urge, and wait until you can make your purchasing decisions with a clear head.
Of course, by then (in the world of PC components anyway) there might be information on next year’s release, and a question of whether you should wait. Such is the eternal cycle. Just don’t get scalped – either as a financial practicality or on principle, paying out way over RRP sucks.