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The must-have app this holiday season tells you when the PS5 is back in stock

Online bots and holiday deals
Online bots are making it harder to find holiday deals this year 03:34

If the hottest gadget this holiday season is a PlayStation 5, the second is the humble product tracker. Much lower-profile than the flashy tech gadgets they track, these apps and websites, which number over a dozen, trawl retail websites to let shoppers know when high-demand items are back in stock at a retailer. 

The lineup includes new and well-known websites, such as NowInStock, StockInformer, zooLert, Octoshop, FastAlerts and camelcamelcamel, as well as an army of Twitter bots. 

Leading them is HotStock, a UK-based app that locates popular products like gaming consoles and graphics cards. Downloads of HotStock in the U.S. doubled from October to November of this year, according to App Annie, a mobile data and analytics provider. 

These apps, which largely rely on automated technology, are closely competing with human product trackers who get tips from warehouse workers, website trackers or companies themselves, and the most successful of whom have built followings of a million.

"We're in uncharted territory," said Matt Swider, a technology reporter whose full-time job these days is tracking gaming consoles on his ultra-popular Twitter account. "Not even the retailers have a good system set up in order to tell people, 'Hey, we have this in stock.'"

Dash for a stash

Product trackers are rising to prominence amid a perfect storm: A holiday season with scads of "must-have" electronics and toys is bogged down by shipping delays just as consumers are ready to spend at record levels. The shipping delays and related supply-chain snarls are expected to last well into 2022.

"Anyone who has anything on a container ship is in a big world of hurt right now," Rick Watson, an ecommerce consultant, told CBS MoneyWatch. "If you have a toy that's on a ship and it gets here two months too late you might as well burn it. Your kids are going to be upset, you're not going to get full price for that product."

Supply chain crisis could disrupt holiday shopping 08:00

While this holiday season is far from the first time a hot toy or electronic game was unavailable, it's unusual in how erratically stocked those items can be, Watson said. In previous years, items tended to get sold out everywhere at roughly the same time. This year, businesses are trying different strategies to get holiday-season goods through shipping gridlock, Watson said. 

Some are deciding to wait out blockage at major ports. Others are diverting cargo ships to smaller ports elsewhere, or shipping expensive cargo on airplanes. That means consumers are constantly having to check individual retailers' websites to try to get a leg up on items. 

In November, online shoppers saw 3 billion out-of-stock notices, according to Adobe's digital economy index — up 50% from October.

That's where apps like HotStock come in. They automate the process of trawling the most popular websites to check for popular items — Xboxes, Sony Playstations and graphics cards are the top items currently being tracked. Once an item is in stock, the app sends a notification to a user's phone, or a pop-up in their browser.

But for all their popularity and high app store ratings, these trackers have limitations. For every review saying "I couldn't have gotten a PS5 without this," there's another complaint on Reddit that an alert came up empty. The bots rely on retailers' websites, which are not a perfect reflection of an item's availability. 

"Pricing can be wrong; stock levels can be wrong; there can be delays; these systems can go down," said Rick Watson, an ecommerce consultant. 

As many shoppers have realized, it's one thing for a PS5 to be available somewhere online, and something totally different to have that item paid for and in the mail to your house ahead of the holidays. 

"I've definitely been too slow to take advantage of some of the offers. You don't actually get a product reserved …. you just get to know that it's available," said Devon Fata, CEO of Pixoul, a digital products consultancy. Fata used ZooLerts, a web-based tracker, to get some hard-to-find Lego sets as Christmas gifts for his nephews, he told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. 

As Jonathan Allen, a gamer-turned-product tracker who tweets out news about consoles as SupplyNinja, explained: "The problem that happens most often is consumers are unable to add the product to their cart—it's available, it's there on the website, but adding it to the cart gives you an error or doesn't happen at all. A bot can only tell you when a restock has already started." 

Jonathan Allen, also known as SupplyNinja, says he helped 40,000 people secure a gaming console this year through a combination of in-person sources and tracking retailer stocking patterns. Courtesy SupplyNinja

In contrast, the community of Twitter-based console trackers, of whom Allen is a part, can alert their followers ahead of time of a planned restock. Different retailers have different patterns: Target, for instance, likes to stock early in the morning, Allen writes in his newsletter, which also has tips on which online payment methods to use for the fastest checkout. Citing figures from retailers, Allen said he's helped 40,000 people get a PlayStation or Xbox this year.

Too many alerts

It can be discouraging for a shopper to be bombarded with dozens of product alerts, all of which come up empty. In many cases, those in-stock alerts will be technical glitches, said Matt Swider, the tech journalist. 

"You're getting a lot of false alarms because the 'add to cart' button will light up as a glitch. You get notifications, and [the console is] sold out, but it wasn't available to begin with," he said.

In other cases, a single customer return is enough to list a product as "back in stock" and trigger a notice, according to HotStock. That sets off a feeding frenzy where one buyer — sometimes a reseller with a bot — snags the item, while hundreds more grit their teeth in frustration.

Swider rarely uses bots for his tracking, he said, because the number of results would be overwhelming — and he'd rather alert people who have a chance to actually buy a product. 

Instead, Swider gets tips from a network of warehouse workers and retail staffers who let him know when items are coming in. He said he confirms each drop with two different sources before tweeting them out to his million-plus followers. He also holds regular tutorials on YouTube advising followers on how to secure a console once it's in stock and advises them to avoid scams.

Tech journalist Matt Swider fell into tracking the PS5 after tweeting his frustrations when he tried to secure a unit. After his Twitter following grew over a million, Swider left his job as editor-in-chief of Tech Radar to track consoles and report on tech full-time at his startup newsletter, The Shortcut. Courtesy Matt Swider

Swider's own journey to product-tracking was accidental, he says. About a year ago, he ran into a technical glitch while buying a PS5 online — and by the time it was fixed, the console was sold out. He tried again the next day, tweeting about his experiences. After amassing more than a million Twitter followers, Swider last month left his job as editor-in-chief of Tech Radar to launch The Shortcut, a tech newsletter where he gives advice on restocks and other technology discounts. 

So, how do you get a console?

Swider, Allen and Watson offered several tips to shoppers hoping to snag a console

First: If you do choose to use a tracker, use several. "Never put all your eggs in one basket," Allen said. "Make sure you're following two or three restock accounts."

Also check out manufacturers and retailers, who are increasingly sending out their own alert services. Members of Walmart Plus, the retailer's membership service, get a first crack at purchasing a PS5, said Swider; users can also sign up for back-in-stock alerts on

Consider following some dedicated gamers or technology reporters, who — unlike bots — will be able to answer questions, and often try to warn followers of scams. And scams are plentiful, said Swider, who said he gets hundreds of messages a day from consumers being tempted by PS5s offers on Facebook Marketplace or Twitter. Any such offer, especially for a price close to the retail price, is fake, he warned.

"No one is looking to give you a console for $550 when it's $500 [retail] and it's sold out," he said. "People message me all the time and I have to be curt. It's a scam."

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