Try as you might, your chances of successfully beating bots to buy a hyped sneaker release probably feel increasingly futile. With reselling becoming more mainstream, fly-by-night flippers have set their sights on nearly every drop, whether it be the usual limited-edition collaborations or a widely released retro. Some sellers have even expanded their wares to include trading cards and computer parts. While this isn't a new thing in the world of limited-edition footwear, it's one that's growing rapidly, a possible byproduct of quarantine as young adults look to supplement their income. Sure, we'll joke on social media about how difficult it is to score a single pair of Nike Dunks through the brand's polarizing SNKRS app, but, at the end of the day, the circumstances are more frustrating than they are funny. It's gotten to the point where hitting on a pair of shoes for retail comes as a legitimate surprise. We've grown so used to the Ls that the victories make us do a double take.
Despite this uptick in bot activity, one of the year's biggest sneaker launches actually managed to thwart them altogether. It's a blueprint that brands and retailers could learn from, although it's more of an exercise in adaptation than it is a cheat code.
On Aug. 29, Union Los Angeles released its new collaboration with Jordan Brand online. Highlighted by two colorways of the Air Jordan IV (a Union-exclusive Guava Ice style and an Off-Noir makeup that is set to receive a wider launch in October), the collection is a follow-up to 2018's popular Air Jordan 1 collab. Using similar colors and a Jordan 1-adjacent chopped-and-screwed theme, the Jordan IV was destined to make noise on the resale market. Sensing the buzz ahead of the release, Union owner Chris Gibbs worked closely with e-commerce partner Shopify to ensure the shopping experience would be as fair as possible.
"Dealing with bots in particular is something that we have to deal with on a smaller basis," Gibbs says. "You know, we've only had two launches, really three maybe in the history of store launches, of this magnitude. But on a monthly basis or even weekly, we'll have smaller launches at the store. Our store is privileged enough to be able to get a lot of products that a lot of people want and there are limited amounts of the goods available. So dealing with bots is something that's always top of mind for us. Typically what we've done for things that we think there's going to be issues around bots in the past is we'll launch it in-store only. That alleviates the bot issue. Unfortunately, it doesn't allow someone in Idaho who might like our product to get it."
Due to COVID-19 closing Union's brick and mortar location for months, Gibbs and his team were forced to limit the in-store drop to a local raffle, meaning the majority of stock wound up online. Gibbs anticipated as much, and had actually been working with the Shopify team months in advance to come up with a plan.
Loren Padelford, VP and GM of Shopify Plus, gives Gibbs credit for being proactive about the issue. "I think what Chris has done with their drops is innovative and pushing the boundaries of technology that can identify what's a real human versus a software program, and making that interesting and unique so that it also adds to the experience someone has on a website instead of just being annoying," Padelford tells Complex. "It's almost drawing the humans into the gate. But it's big. It's a big space. It takes a lot of work and the bot manufacturers are not stupid, because there's real money here."
Union and Shopify came up with a multilayered method to keep the automated buyers at bay. The first is a question-and-answer prompt Shopify Plus calls checkpoint, which anyone who attempted to purchase the shoes had to go through in order to add product to their cart. In this case, Gibbs decided to keep things straightforward. "Ours was, 'What color is an orange?,'' Gibbs says. "We wanted to make that really easy. We knew that there were a lot of people trying to get this product and so obviously we tried to make it as simple as possible. There were memes going around hours after the launch of people who failed to answer that question, and for the most part, if you failed to answer the question, you probably were a bot. What color is an orange? The answer's in the question."
The question for the Jordan drop was intentionally kept simple, but Gibbs hints that Union might ramp up the difficulty for future releases, using hyper-specific examples that only locals would know, such as the color of the store's bathroom door handle.
Shopify offered Union a number of different methods to combat the bots before the store ultimately decided on checkpoint. This method was also used for hyped releases from other retailers in recent months. For its online release of the "Chunky Dunky" Ben & Jerry's x Nike SB Dunk Low in May, Concepts asked customers a question about ice cream flavor. In July, Instagram-favorite JJJJound made shoppers identify the creator of Calvin and Hobbes before they could buy the studio's green New Balance 992 collaboration. And earlier this month, for the release of its exclusive 992 online, Packer Shoes prompted buyers to answer when New Balance was founded. Both of these New Balance releases used objectively harder questions than Union, and both pairs were produced in lower quantities. Despite this, if the reactions in their Instagram comments are any indication, both drops were also plagued by bot activity. So what did Union do differently?
Gibbs isn't giving up the specifics. But aside from the front-facing Captcha and checkpoint additions, he says that there were other "invisible" things going on in the backend of the site that morning that helped corral the 800,000-plus visitors, over 700,000 of which were unique.
"I've been talking with [Shopify] for over a month and a half leading up to the release, fine tuning our strategy, and making sure everything was in place," Gibbs says. "Then we had a big review at the end and what they told me and from what I can tell, it was a huge success. I got a number of people telling me that they got through, and they were human, and they made out what's called a manual sale, which is funny we have to quantify it like that now. But [Shopify] said that no known bots got through."
For one of the year's biggest releases, "no known bots" almost sounds too good to be true. But compare the social media comments on Union's drop to, well, just about anyone else. "Lmao all bots flopped," says one user. "Thanks for putting a stop to the bots!" reads another.
The team at Shopify are ready for the challenge.
"You can never stand still," Padelford says. "The thing that worked this time, you can pretty much be sure that the bot manufacturers are trying to figure out how to get around that question right now."