Can’t find any Fingerlings? Bots snap up popular Christmas toys for resale

Hot holiday toys have always been hard to find. But the proliferation of online shopping makes it even tougher to purchase coveted items because of software that snaps them up as soon as they are offered for sale.

Fingerlings, those colorful chirping monkeys (and sloths and unicorns) that wrap around your finger, have become one of the most desired toys on holiday shopping lists.

Unfortunately, the $15 creatures are sold out online almost everywhere. Toys R Us? Gone. Walmart? None left in stock. Target? Nope.

But check eBay or Amazon, and sellers are offering them for double, triple and quadruple their original price. There is even one being advertised for $5,000.

Hot holiday toys have always been hard to find. The long list of heartbreakers includes Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, which caused parents to mob stores in the 1980s, Tickle Me Elmo in 1996, and a toy version of the “Star Wars” droid BB-8, which quickly sold out in 2015.

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But the proliferation of online shopping makes it even tougher to purchase coveted items because of software that snaps them up as soon as they are offered for sale.

“If it’s popular, it’s going to be taken by bots and resold,” said Omri Iluz, the co-founder and chief executive of the cybersecurity firm PerimeterX, in a phone interview.

The bots work by constantly pinging retail websites, searching for sales and analyzing URLs.

The moment an item is in stock, the software runs through the checkout process at a speed that is “completely inhuman,” said Iluz, whose company protects large retailers and other organizations from bot attacks.

The bots are drawn to scarce items “like sharks to blood” and use web-scraping techniques to guess the ID of an unreleased product, PerimeterX explains on its website. That allows scalpers to buy products before an official sale becomes public. Bots can also subscribe to online notifications of sales and bypass purchasing limits set by retailers by using multiple internet addresses.

Laura Oliver, who blogs about deals on her website, A Frugal Chick, has been keeping tabs on Fingerlings, the brainchild of the company WowWee, for months, and notified her readers on Facebook whenever she found a retailer that had them in stock.

It was an all-consuming job.

“I have had dreams about Fingerlings,” she said.

On Amazon, Fingerlings priced at $15 will sometimes last as long as 25 minutes, Oliver said.

“They are the only one that if I throw it up on social media I feel like my people have a chance to get it before it disappears,” she said. “I’ve had readers comment that they’ve put the Fingerlings in their cart on the Walmart website and when they go to check out, it’s gone.”

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

Toys R Us says on its website that Fingerlings are available in its brick-and-mortar stores. When asked about the cyberbots, the retailer declined to comment, referring instead to a statement from Christin Fernandez, vice president for communications for the Retail Industry Leaders Association that said retailers and suppliers “are working around the clock to make sure American families have access to the season’s hottest items” and are “committed to taking precautions to mitigate fraud and illegal transactions.”

Amazon said Tuesday that it monitors bot-buying activity, and attempts to limit the purchase of high-demand products.

Target has also taken measures to deter resellers, said a company spokesman, Eddie Baeb, “including quantity limits for purchases and technologies designed to help us monitor and prevent reseller activity.”

Other hot toys, like the Barbie Hello Dreamhouse, the L.O.L. Surprise! Doll and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System NES Classic Edition have also sold out, but are appearing on Amazon and eBay advertised at prices several times higher than retail.

With cyberbots snagging toys, “The entire ecosystem breaks down,” Iluz said. Bots are making legal purchases, but they do not become loyal customers, and they will not leave positive reviews.

And customers get frustrated. “When an advertised item is unavailable because of out-of-stocks, customers don’t blame bots, they blame the retailer,” Roger Beahm, a professor of marketing at the Wake Forest University School of Business, said in an email.

For parents who were left empty-handed after searching for popular toys, there are still plenty of gifts out there that children will love — like Magna-Tiles or the Hatchimals that were so hard to find last year.

The yearly rush to buy the hottest toy is often guided by emotions, Beahm said.

“Sometimes it’s important to remain a little more rational in our purchase decisions,” he added, and to remember the fate of fad items like the Beanie Babies, which are now “practically worthless.”

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