As the holidays arrive, retailers are forcing more PS5 restocks behind paywalls

Commentary: You're paying to avoid a bot problem the industry has ignored for far too long.

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Russell Holly mirror selfie
Russell Holly
Russell Holly is a Managing Editor on the Commerce team at CNET. He works with all of CNET to assemble top recommendations as well as helping everyone find the best way to buy anything at the best price. When not writing for CNET you can find him riding a bike, running around in Jedi robes, or contributing to WOSU public radio's Tech Tuesday segment.
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Russell Holly
4 min read
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The first anniversary of the PlayStation 5 arrives on Nov. 12. While the PS5 has sold more than 13 million units worldwide in that time, the one thing that hasn't changed is how difficult it is to buy one. A couple times a week, one retailer or another creates a brief window where a lucky few can score a console, and when that limited supply evaporates it's a waiting game for the next restock.

One reason these console availability windows seem to last just a few minutes -- or even seconds -- is that you're not just competing with humans to buy. You're fighting against bots -- basically, automated software scripts -- that are always going to be faster at checking out. Those bot runners will then flip the PS5 (or Xbox or Switch) for a healthy markup on eBay or elsewhere.

Read more: Check out our PS5 restock tracker

Whether it's concert tickets, the latest shoe on the SNKRS service or a PS5 at GameStop, the bot army has long been the scourge of honest shoppers. But to bypass the bots, many retailers have started offering early access to products via paid subscription services that cost as much as $200 annually. You're essentially paying a premium to increase the chances of getting your hands on a PS5 before Christmas. Again: That's a better chance, not even a guarantee. And as Black Friday approaches, more retailers are opting for this "premium subscription" approach to increase their margins. 

Pay for play -- literally

On Oct. 29, Walmart announced it was going to have a PS5 restock with a twist -- anyone willing to sign up for Walmart Plus could access the checkout button one hour earlier than everyone else. Walmart Plus was originally unveiled as the retailer's answer to Amazon Prime, with discounts on grocery delivery, gasoline and more. But now Walmart was using the PS5 as an upsell, effectively dangling the possibility that you could access sales before the products sold out. All you have to do is pay $13 per month or $98 per year, and you're part of this not-so-secret club. 

Walmart/Screenshot by John Falcone/CNET

This year, Walmart is also offering its members early access to online Black Friday sales. But Walmart isn't the first to offer customers the ability to pay extra money to buy something on its site. Best Buy granted early access to PS5s to people who signed up for its $200 per year Totaltech program, and GameStop offered consoles to its PowerUp Rewards Pro subscription, albeit at a more modest $15 per year. If you don't count Sony, which has been aggressively staging its own PS5 restock events through the PlayStation Direct service, these retailers are the most common places to find a console in the US by far. 

Best Buy and Walmart did not respond to our requests for comment on the increasing number of PS5 restocks targeted only at their membership programs.

Members only

While access to a PS5 during a restock has not been entirely hidden behind a paywall yet, in some cases it has come close. GameStop has had multiple restock events where the consoles were sold out before the public access pages were live, and by the time Walmart's last restock had become public the site was so inundated by shopping bots and technical errors it was nearly impossible to check out. One bot service boasted it had purchased 30 PS5 consoles amid the chaos while many regular customers struggled. 

PS5 Restock

When Best Buy limits access to consoles to its Totaltech program, this is what nonsubscribers will see.

Best Buy/Screenshot by Russell Holly/CNET

Walmart and Best Buy have made several attempts to curb bot purchases over the last year, from creating virtual queues and multiple Captcha-like authentication layers to limiting how many purchases can be made in a single checkout session. These efforts appear to have slowed down a lot of the bots, making it possible for many people to check out in between bot purchases. 

Creating these member-only early access events, meanwhile, does not exclude shopping bots, but it does limit them while creating a dedicated time and space for those eager to get a console to show up. Like the PlayStation Direct shopping events, members are notified when a restock will happen and can plan to be there at a set time to make a purchase. Basically, it's an elite shopping club where you can line up without the riff-raff -- in this case, bots and nonmembers.

Everything's a subscription

To be sure, these membership programs offer other benefits. For some, the unlimited Geek Squad consultations that come with the Best Buy Totaltech membership may be worth the price of admission. The same goes for the nickel discount for each gallon of gas that Walmart Plus members get when filling their tank. It's a path that Amazon blazed long ago with Amazon Prime: Give members a set of "free with membership" perks (two-day shipping, video streaming), but only after they pay a hefty yearly fee. 

But as those perks extend to private shopping queues on hard-to-get items, it undeniably creates two tiers of shoppers: those who are "in the know" and have paid for early access, and more casual shoppers trying to get a gift for someone else, only to find "the good stuff" increasingly out of reach. 

Again, bots have been buying up products to resell them online for other people well before a component shortage on this scale occurred. But instead of helping all of their customers sidestep the bot problem, retailers are opting for a pay-to-play option for those who can afford it. The cynic in me thinks it's to help boost their bottom line even more. And it's not just the membership fees: Unlike bots, consumers can buy the protection plans and accessories these companies actually make their bigger margins on. Now those same people are being asked to pay for the ability to pay for something else, and it's unlikely this trend will go away anytime soon.