So-called shopping bots, programs that repeatedly log on to Web sites to help people search for prices or products, have contributed to some recently stalled or crashed Web stores.
Amazon.com, Gohastings.com and Kmart's BlueLight.com are among the online merchants selling PlayStation 2 consoles that have had outages or slowdowns while featuring the popular, and scarce, toy. While Amazon has said its troubles are unrelated to heavy traffic, BlueLight and Gohastings, the Internet arm of Hastings Entertainment, say shopping bots are at least partially responsible for their technical glitches.
"We sat there and watched the site get 80,000 hits in a period of minutes," said Dave Karraker, spokesman for San Francisco-based BlueLight, which has suffered periodic delays in doing business because of heavy traffic. "It's clear to us that there are people using bots to scan the site for the PlayStation 2."
One bot called the PS2finder had been available through message boards for download at PS2bargains, a community site dedicated to helping shoppers find consoles for sale. The bot can also been found on a Web site called Media Enforcer.
"I like the bots; they scream consumer empowerment," said Forrester Research analyst Carrie Johnson, who said she believes that merchants and manufacturers withhold too much information from consumers to help boost demand.
Many stores selling the PlayStation 2 have said they sporadically receive a varying number of consoles and do not know what day or time they will be available to consumers. And since the stores have been selling out in seconds, consumers must continually visit the merchant's site if they want even a chance of landing a machine.
Unless they have a bot.
A bot can automatically log on every 30 seconds on up to seven different sites simultaneously, checking to see if a particular product has gone on sale. It can also locate whether a product has been reduced in price. When it finds it, it emails the customer immediately.
"With the bots, consumers don't have to depend on the merchant for information; they can get it when they want it," Johnson said. "And merchants are learning that you can't keep information from consumers. If you do, consumers can wreak a little havoc."
Travis Hill is the creator of the PS2finder shopping bot, just one of an abundance of PlayStation 2 shopping bots. He said he wrote the program because he felt sorry for those people desperately searching for the PlayStation 2, some of which included parents of children hoping to get a console this holiday season.
Gartner analyst Geri Spieler says that while businesses need to come to terms with the buyer-centric world created by inventions like the shopping bot, consumers still need to be savvy.
"There isn't much chance to get a console under conventional means," Hill said. "You need some help."
At SiteExperts.com, the InStockBot is another bot that is popular with those hunting for the PlayStation 2.
"Registration is $9.95 and worth every penny," according to one person, who posted a message at PS2bargains. "Wouldn't have gotten a PS2 without it."
But bots can be bad news for the merchants who watch their sites collapse under heavy traffic, or for shoppers who are not after a PlayStation 2 and have to wait for slow page turns at a site bogged down by bots.
"Bargain hunters are going to act the way most advantageous to them," IDC e-commerce analyst Malcolm Maclachlan said. "Do you worry whether you are inconveniencing the person behind you in line?"
Bots have been around for years. A host of Web sites deployed bots for shoppers, including AuctionRover, BizRate, eLiberation and NetMarket.
Most helped consumers trawl for the lowest prices, but merchants feared the price competition, Maclachlan said. They looked on bots as evil electronic intruders and even found ways to block them, as long as the bot kept coming from the same IP address and server.
Now bots can be scattered around the Internet by people right from their desktops, something Maclachlan said could be "a massive problem for e-tailers."
"Consumers are trying to buy something that ultimately is going to benefit the retailer," Forrester's Johnson said. "You can't fault consumers for trying to get the products.
"Sites going down have become part of the online holiday shopping experience. It's going to happen no matter how many servers they use," she said. "Consumers have gotten used to it. To most online shoppers, it still beats standing in a mall."