By mid-March, Amazon and most big box stores, like WalMart and Target, were essentially wiped out of kettlebells and dumbbells, as people stuck at home and without access to their regular gyms scrambled to create makeshift home gyms suitable for pandemic-approved virtual workouts. The same is now true for popular brands of affordable hair trimmers, as the nation’s hair becomes long and unruly in 30+ days of COVID-19 lockdown. But if you’re waiting for a restock to get a shot at finally snagging a kettlebell or trimmer, you’ll be waiting a long time: Tech-enabled resellers are cornering the market on anything identified as a high-demand item during lockdown, making it almost impossible for anyone else to get them.
Throughout the messaging platforms Discord and Slack, hundreds, if not thousands, of people are joining paid-membership groups that immediately notify members of restocks. Regular panic buying isn’t what’s causing non-essential but still nice-to-have items to remain sold out; instead, so-called “monitors,” or software that uses thousands of unique IP addresses to constantly check product pages, are watching popular items and automatically pinging a Discord or Slack full of resellers when a restock hits. The members, all of whom pay for limited slots in these various groups, then manually purchase the restocked item as fast as possible, before it sells out within a matter of seconds.
A source, who asked to remain anonymous so he’s not identified by his group, told VICE he joined a monitor group with about 500 members on Discord just last week, and has made 22 orders of instantly sold-out items so far. “People are buying up certain hair clippers and [they’re] being resold for a profit,” he told VICE via Twitter direct message. “The Wahl Color Pro Cordless is a big one, damn near impossible to find. Every time Amazon restocks, they sell out within seconds. Weights are another huge thing right now—AmazonBasics weights, any weights on Walmart.”
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The source, who we’ll call Dan, said this reselling group was created only a few weeks ago amid the pandemic, and he joined after using a similar Discord group that monitors sneakers with automated software, as well. Dan pays $45 per month to belong to this COVID-themed reselling group, but made his first month’s fee back by reselling a single webcam at a markup. He’s also ordered two restocked Bowflex home gyms, reselling one locally for about $200 over the listed price, and using the profits to fund his own set of impossible-to-find Bowflex dumbbells. Dan refers to himself as a “hobbyist,” using his reselling profits to supplement the income from his day job, but screenshots he shared with VICE show some members of his group making upwards of $20,000 by reselling marked up items on eBay. He added that a lot of the members seem to be younger kids who are home from cancelled semesters of school.
Unlike Bird Bot, the entirely-automated open source software VICE recently reported on that’s being used to buy restocked Nintendo Switches, these monitor groups still require actual people to manually add the items to their carts and click through the checkout process. Even with exclusive access granted by belonging to a paid group, getting a restocked item is still competitive. Dan was recently clicking through a restock of Ring Fit Adventure, a Nintendo Switch game, and it sold out as he was trying to check out.
"There are already people talking about holding onto some sets of Bowflex dumbbells for the inevitable second wave of COVID-19."
“There’s literally no way normal people are getting these items,” Dan said. “Normal people meaning people who don’t have access to these monitors. The only way they would touch these items would be if hundreds or thousands of the product was restocked.” He added that, for a layperson to get their hands on any of the items being monitored by the software available to these Discord groups, they’d have to essentially be constantly refreshing the item page, and know where the buttons are to click through the checkout process. The process isn’t unlike trying to beat ticket buying bots on Ticketmaster; even with best human effort and sheer luck of landing on a page at the precise right time, the monitor groups are tough to beat.
So-called “normal people” could, of course, decide to cough up $45 to join a Discord group and get a more fair shot at buying some hair clippers or dumbbells for themselves, but Dan told VICE that even membership to the groups is prone to immediate sell out. Owners of each group cap membership at a certain number; the group he belongs to is closed to new members until May 1, at which point you’d probably need a referral to get in.
Amazon has already cracked down on price gouging on its platform during the COVID-19 pandemic, removing and blocking their products from its server, so it’s not impossible that retailers will figure out a way to curtail this new behavior. Otherwise, there’s always a chance that today’s hot quarantine item will be tomorrow’s trash, and in some distant future, the people of the world will once again be able to buy weights at their sticker price. When that will be is impossible to know. “Once these items are no longer worth reselling, they’ll be removed from the monitors and new items added,” Dan said. “There are already people talking about holding onto some sets of Bowflex dumbbells for the inevitable second wave of COVID-19…”
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