An underground community of 'sneakerheads' is using bots to corner the market on rare sneakers

Key Points
  • Sneakerheads are turning to bots in order to get limited edition sneakers
  • These programs can add items to cart and purchase products instantaneously, beating out regular humans
  • Some say it's fair because it levels the playing field against people who have more sophisticated programs or connections
The Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 sneaker in the zebra colorway.
Sebastian Willnow | DPA | AP

Randy* still remembers buying his first pair of real sneakers, the Air Jordan 13 Flint. Ever since then, he's been a sneakerhead.

Being a collector while growing up in south Florida wasn't easy. Randy couldn't easily get to a bigger city to buy sneakers in-store, so he was stuck buying online. But he was too slow, and he always lost out. Eventually he started using browser extensions that would put sneakers in his online cart the second they went on sale.

Then he hit the goldmine: bots.

"It's like putting a Lambo next to a Toyota Corolla," Randy said, comparing bots and extensions. "A bot was quicker. It would do everything, add to cart and check out. You could set up information and put your credit card info in."

Eventually Randy quit his day job at the batting cage for a more lucrative career of reselling sneakers.

Take the much-desired Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2, Kanye West's sneaker. If you were lucky enough to grab a pair of the Zebra colorway at retail, you'd pay $220 plus tax. At sneaker consignment store Flight Club, it's between $1,250 to $2,500 a pair. Ebay has a pair for $1,750. And at on sneaker stock market site StockX, the 52 week high was $3,072 a pair.

"I do feel bad, but I don't mind reselling," Randy explained. "It sucks because as a collector, you want to have the shoe and not pay overprice for it. But, at the same time, it's a hustle. People are out here flipping shoes. That is literally their job."

"People are doing a lot worse things out here," he added. "I'd rather sell shoes than sell drugs."

Hacking the sneaker wars

In-store limited edition sneaker releases usually go to bigger cities like New York or Atlanta, where sneaker culture is more prevalent. If you're willing to spend four days in waiting in line, maybe you'll be lucky, but even then you''re not guaranteed to get a pair in your size.

If you don't want the hassle, you can buy a pair online from a third-party seller. But unless you're willing to pay top dollar to someone reputable, there's a good chance of getting stuck with a counterfeit pair. Remember those Flint 13s Randy bought? He sold them to buy Air Jordan Cool Grey 11s. When he received them, he found out they were fake.

Or, you can buy a bot.

AIY Expert Solutions is a company with employees in Australia, Lebanon and Nigeria that sells sneaker bots like AIO Bot and Another Nike Bot for about $325. More than 40 employees run the bots, providing tutorials, customer support and up-to-date software engineering.

Some people claim bots are unfair because they allow technology to beat out humans for products. But people just want an honest shot at getting limited edition sneakers, AIY Expert Solutions vice president Alex* explained. If everyone has their own bot, it levels the playing field. He notes that even in-store sales are often unfair because retail workers can "hide" shoes for friends or for a side profit.

"It was never easy," Alex explained. "The Big Yeezy [Kanye West] promised everyone we would have some. It's been four years! Might as well have gone for the lotto."

AIY Expert Solutions has sold tens of thousands of bots to date, according to Alex. On average, each bot has only purchased about 2.5 pairs of Yeezys. Some people do buy 50 bots then and buy 300 to 400 pairs at a time, but those few-and-far-between professionals are "edge-case users" who do not represent the majority. Most bot owners just want a couple rare pairs.

"That's not something that's going to kill the community like one person buying 3,000 pairs will," he said. "I get resellers, but I think everyone should have a fighting chance against resellers."

Shootings and riots

Bots also make it easier and safer for everyone, argues John*, who runs a sneaker reselling service called RSVP Kingz.

Because there is such a demand for some sneakers, it can get dangerous. Two people were shot in last year in Minneapolis over Nike Air Jordan 2 Retro Wing It shoes, according to the New York Daily News. The store only had 10 pairs for sale. A Houston man was murdered over three pairs of Air Jordans, the Houston Chronicle reported. A 14-year-old boy allegedly shot another teen for cutting in a line to buy Yeezys in Brooklyn, NBC New York said.

To be completely fair, these cases are rare but people don't want to deal with the hassle.

"I don't want the drama that goes on in-store with riots," John said.

RSVP Kingz uses its own proprietary bots to buy sneakers on behalf of its customers, who pay a fee for the service. Costs vary depending on the sneaker, with the most expensive Yeezys demanding up to $300 plus retail costs per pair. If the service is not able to get a pair, you get your money back.

"It's much easier," John said. "You don't have to do anything yourself. You don't have to go in store. If you are at home, you don't even have to press anything on your computer."

John, who is a currently studying computer science in college, got into the sneaker reselling business after seeing his friends get rich from sneakers. He's a sneakerhead himself. He owns 40 to 50 pairs of Yeezys in various patterns for his own personal wear. His personal favorite is the Beluga colorway. RSVP Kingz was able to secure 1,800 pairs for its customers, he claims.

Because he is providing a service, John feels justified in what he does. It's cheaper than buying shoes on the open market, and you're sure it's the real thing. Bots are difficult to run and expensive to maintain, Randy adds. You'll need to know how to code your bot, as well as purchase proxy servers and other maintenance costs. However, Randy has since quit the sneaker game and now makes money creating YouTube videos about, you guessed it, sneakers.

Or, you can continue to try your luck. One of AIY Expert Solutions' members was at a thrift store in Lebanon sifting through pairs of sneakers when he found a pair of Air Jordan 1 Retro Royals. They think someone off-loaded a bunch of sneakers in the U.S., and the black and blue pair, which retail for $1,000 for a used pair on Flight Club, managed to make its way to the country.

"He's been wearing them for the last two years," Alex said laughing.

* All names were changed for privacy.