Runs on toilet paper. Stocking up on canned goods. Disrupted supply chains. In a year marked by limited stock and reduced operating capacity, the chaotic release of the PS5 and Xbox Series X birthed 2020’s unlikeliest champion: inventory trackers. I take a look inside the year’s strangest development to understand what it means for the future of the online shopping experience.
When economics majors learn about self-fulfilling prophecies, they usually study the bank runs of the Great Depression. From 2021, economics majors may learn about a more recent self-fulfilling prophecy: runs on toilet paper during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alongside curbside pickup, virtual consultations, and “dark” stores, limited supply defined the shopping experience in 2020. From beauty products and loungewear to jigsaw puzzles and video game consoles, supply chains couldn’t keep up with the demand of consumers stuck at home looking for ways to treat and entertain themselves.
As the year comes to an end, I revisit the tools that helped customers score from home, using the controversial release of Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X to understand how inventory trackers will affect the future of the online shopping experience across the board.
Twitter Will Do What Facebook, Instagram, and Online Magazines Can’t
For shoppers looking to get their hands on the next-generation of video game consoles, Twitter became an irreplaceable social media platform. While Facebook and Instagram lean visual, Twitter’s text-heavy content makes it the perfect medium to share release information in real time.
Accounts like Wario64, PS5 Stock Alerts, and GYX Deals were seemingly online 24/7, keeping their eyes open for the latest console drops and their equally hard-to-find accessories. While Wario64 has been in the stock game longer than most, GYX Deals launched their account when PlayStation 5 pre-orders started on September 16. At the time, GYX Deals had 300 followers. By launch day, November 12, the account grew to 12,000 followers. At press time, GYX Deals has broken past 200,000 followers.
This explosive growth signifies demand for a consolidated source of inventory information in product categories that experience limited stock, whether because of supply chain issues or artificial scarcity.
What the success of these Twitter accounts shows us is that consumers know what products they want and they don’t need a ton of editorializing or excess imagery in order to follow through with a purchase. Extra information may even create an unnecessary obstacle between adding to cart and checking out.
Accounts like these will further grow their reach and encroach on territory long held by digital publications, whom retailers and brands currently rely on to get product release information out. The result will be a handful of accounts in each product category acting as trustworthy sources of information for the latest drops. They’ll likely create distinct personalities as well to differentiate themselves from the competition, similar to how the best publications have cultivated unique perspectives.
Expect to see a growing selection of noteworthy Twitter accounts across footwear, apparel, beauty, and electronics, alongside a burgeoning subculture of affiliate marketing.
Inventory Checkers Will Force Retailers and Brands to Innovate
The former started as a way to help LEGO enthusiasts locate hard-to-find pieces but has since evolved to include inventory information on every product carried at big-box retailers like Walmart, including next-generation video game consoles.
PopFindr operates similarly, updating inventory at retailers like Best Buy, Target, and GameStop as soon as delivery trucks check in at loading bays.
Both sites warn against relying on them 100% since inventory often includes demo units, and units that have been paid for and set aside for curbside pickup.
Shoppers jumped on this previously little-known source for inventory information, flooding stores when they realized they stood no chance against bots, causing Walmart to ask Brickseek to remove information about console stock from its website.
Expect retailers and brands to react to inventory being out in the open like this:
1. Retailers will be forced to become more transparent about inventory for in-demand items and implement new technologies to get products in the hands of consumers instead of bots.
Since the PlayStation 5 launched, Sony changed their own ecommerce queue system from first come, first served, which largely benefitted bots, to random queue assignment, which has placed far more consoles in the hands of fans rather than scalpers.
Although retailers will continue to sell out of in-demand, underproduced products regardless of whose hands they end up in, retailers will seek to implement their own queue systems in order to build respectable reputations and earn customer loyalty.
This scenario will drive innovation and competition in the world of virtual queue management as a few companies battle it out for dominance.
2. Brands will weigh creating more products to meet demand against the press and social media noise generated by artificial scarcity.
For some brands, the latter will prove more valuable long term than immediate revenue, continuing the cycle and bringing other product categories closer to Supreme’s drop model.
Although most brands will not want to limit supply across the board, many will begin offering hero products in limited quantities, coordinating marketing efforts with limited drops to keep themselves in the cultural conversation throughout the year.
Brands Will Wake Up to the Possibilities of Discord
Discord, long a popular chat tool for video game communities, is on the verge of going mainstream. With 100+ million active users and an estimated $7 billion evaluation—up from $3.5 billion just six months ago—Discord is on track to be in 2021 what TikTok was in 2020.
In the wake of next-generation consoles releasing, it’s where even the most in-the-know Twitter accounts have been hanging out for the latest stock information. Much of Discord’s future relevance in the world of ecommerce, however, will be determined by decisions made internally.
Buying and selling is already an accepted practice amongst users, something Discord allows provided transactions don’t violate its terms of service. On the commercial side, many companies already have official channels, providing a dedicated resource for fans to engage with the company and the community directly.
What hasn’t yet occurred en masse is companies rewarding Discord users for their engagement, letting them become the first audience able to buy limited products. Ecommerce of this nature would require building an infrastructure that supports this at scale, something Discord is likely to do as it approaches mainstream status.
If Discord heads in this direction, expect brands, particularly in footwear and apparel labels, to flock toward this untapped resource as video games become more influential in streetwear and fashion circles. Community management will play an increasingly important role in this scenario as consumers increasingly determine a brand’s cultural credibility and authenticity.
While visual-based social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok will continue to play a powerful role in the perception of a brand, Discord will allow brands to create a fluid identity that changes daily based on conversations with consumers.
The brands that are able to navigate this dynamic reality while keeping up with issues that are central to consumers’ lives in real time will emerge as market leaders and set a new standard for listening to the customer.
Online Shoppers Will Becomes BFFs With Browser Extensions
Developed and launched in the aftermath of the PS5 launch, OctoShop’s creator, reddit user u/rithpath, describes OctoShop like this: “The idea behind it is that scalpers and coders spend thousands on bots to sell at 2x on ebay. We wanted to give the same power to everyone with store comparisons and back-in-stock notifications that you can set by just going to a store page and pressing a button.”
In the same way Honey took the chaos of sourcing online coupons and consolidated the experience into one seamless browser extension, expect emerging market leaders like OctoShop to leverage their sudden popularity and become the Honey of Hype, focusing on supply instead of deals.
Like Twitter, we’ll likely see supply-focused browser extensions across product categories that experience limited stock. Retailers will want to work with browser extensions directly, ensuring their stock is shared with audiences that are after those products. Browser extensions will receive a cut of sales, becoming more corporate versions of Twitter’s cultish affiliate marketing heroes.
The most innovative will offer a seamless ecommerce experience, providing stock information, shopping rewards, and one-tap payment in an intuitive and enjoyable environment. These browser extensions will likely lean slightly alternative to the Rakutens of the world, combining the convenience of technology with the je ne sais quois of cultural credibility across the product categories that trade in it.
What It All Means
Enterprising individuals and teams rose to the year’s challenges by developing tools that build on existing technologies and trends, illuminating an expanding field of products designed to provide consumers with the resources they need to get the items they want.
While all are still in their infancy, don’t be surprised when Twitter accounts, Discord channels, and browser extensions become bonafide companies with huge followings, constantly reevaluating their approach to deliver what the best ecommerce tools do: a satisfying and effortless online shopping experience.
Lead image: PlayStation 5