Entertainment

Rise of the restock account: How the PS5 shortage changed online shopping

Hard-to-find game consoles, combined with affiliate marketing, have created a new wave of online retail gurus.

A PlayStation 5 on a light colored background.

There's been an explosion of online retail accounts since last year, after COVID-19 helped usher in one of the biggest swells of mainstream interest in video games in the history of the medium.

Photo: Charles Sims/Unsplash

Matt Swider knows he’s a product of a very specific, very peculiar time in history. The former TechRadar reporter who has since gone independent watched his online following launch into the stratosphere this past year, climbing from the low four-to-five digits in Twitter followers to more than 1 million in a matter of months.

His secret: helping everyday people navigate the Kafkaesque nightmare that is securing a PlayStation 5 amid a pandemic, chip shortage and global supply chain disruption all rolled into one. Swider, who has been profiled by BuzzFeed News and featured in The New York Times, has turned his obsessive knack for knowing when retailers will restock next-gen consoles into a booming personal brand.

He now operates a Substack newsletter called The Shortcut and streams regularly on YouTube from his New York City apartment, where he’s jacked into what might as well be the ecommerce Matrix across a bevy of floating monitors. “In the very beginning, it was very organic,” Swider told Protocol earlier this month. “I didn’t know there was an entire world out there. I didn’t know there was this whole subculture of restock accounts.”

Swider’s profile may be one of the best-known, but far from the only, online platforms that since March 2020 have transformed into online retail gurus. An explosion of such Twitter, Discord and other social accounts have arrived on the scene since last year, after COVID-19 helped usher in one of the biggest swells of mainstream interest in video games in the history of the medium.

Before the pandemic, this subculture of sorts mainly dabbled in rare and expensive sneaker drops and other limited edition apparel, as well as hard-to-find tech items like video game collector’s editions and high-end Nvidia graphics cards. Yet due to ongoing manufacturer issues around the globe, nabbing your standard home console from Microsoft or Sony, both of which launched new hardware in 2020, has required a mix of almost fanatical determination and a mountain of good fortune. Accounts like Swider’s now exist to help bless the lucky few with their best chance at getting a virtual shopping cart past an army of automated bots, scalpers and fellow console hunters to the checkout lane.

“People are spending less money on leisure activities, whether that’s going to the movies, vacation or going out to eat. And they’re spending it on consumer tech and I think gaming has been the poster child of that shift in consumer spending,” said Ryan Reith, a consumer electronics expert at market research firm IDC. “Two very important gaming console launches happened throughout, and Sony and Microsoft worked for years on that. It’s just unfortunate launch timing and demand for them.”

At the center of this restocking cottage industry, which now finds itself competing with large technology websites’ fast-growing commerce teams, is the affiliate marketing business. Revenue sharing from links, now a bedrock of ecommerce, helps fuel both the online restock subculture and media commerce operations by turning deal-hunting into a profitable exercise, so long as the links shared result in purchased products.

Beyond Swider, countless accounts, many with tens to even hundreds of thousands of followers, have sprouted up to take advantage of the consumer interest. Like Swider, the most reliable of these — like restock masters Wario64 and PS5StockAlerts — command Twitter audiences of more than 1 million followers, earning money each time those accounts can turn an affiliate link into a transaction.

“For the past year this has been my full-time job. I graduated from college [in the] class of 2020, so during the peak of the pandemic, and found this as the best way to make the most out of the situation I was in,” said Cameron Ritz, who goes by the name “KillerCam” online and operates a popular automated Twitter bot and Twitch livestream that runs nonstop, both dedicated to console restocks and other deals. “The way I monetize my service is so that the consumer and I both benefit from our relationship. My Twitter account and 24/7 restock stream are free for everyone to follow, however I run ads and have some affiliate sponsors.”

Alongside the restock subculture, some publishers have turned the pandemic-induced ecommerce boom into a sizable new revenue stream. Websites like Marie Claire UK, BuzzFeed and Condé Nast outlets like Wired and Vogue have all adapted to the affiliate marketing business over the past few years, spinning up product tech, gaming, apparel and beauty-related review and recommendation sections equipped with savvy sales and marketing experts to maximize traffic and convert a growing chunk of it into paying customers.

According to eMarketer, the affiliate marketing industry has grown 52% since 2015 to more than $6.8 billion by the end of 2020, and more than 80% of brands now have an affiliate marketing program, according to Mediakix. In some cases, the revenue jumps for publishers have been dramatic, like 675% in annual growth since 2017 in ecommerce and retail revenues as a share of overall digital sales in the case of Marie Claire UK, and 322% year-over-year ecommerce growth in Q2 of 2020 for Hearst UK, according to What’s New In Publishing. Numerous publishers with commerce divisions also reported high double-digit percentage growth last year compared to 2019.

The restock accounts have often found themselves at odds with this part of the media business, due to some sites cribbing insider info and scoops and not crediting or sourcing information reliably or consistently. In Swider’s case, he’s now competing with the websites of his former peers. “I think a lot of the top tech websites are purposefully setting up these permanent restock pages, and they know full well they’re not helping their readers,” Swider said. “They’re making a lot of money from these so-called ‘halo’ purchases. They’re OK with you not getting a PS5 so long as you checkout with a hairdryer or some Listerine, and they make a profit.”

Swider said he’s still driven by his journalist vigor, which he said dissuades him from ever using his expertise to resell consoles for a profit or to blast out information to his massive Twitter following without verifying it first. It’s another point of differentiation between him and so many of the anonymous restock and deal accounts that simply circulate affiliate links with little to no actual humanity behind the practice. “There’s a lot of people doing the same thing, and you don't really know what their endgame is,” Swift said. “I put my credibility on the line.”

Swider told me of his biggest restock scoop to date, a Best Buy in-store inventory refresh across the entire U.S. earlier this fall that, until Swider said he confirmed it with 10 sources, wasn’t made public by the retailer. When faced with a near-constant barrage of rumors, Swider said he has to put in the extra legwork to make sure he doesn’t lose the trust of his audience. “It puts a lot of pressure on me,” he said. “I want to put out verifiable information.”

Swider sets himself apart by taking pride in the number of people who come to him for earnest evidence and the growing number of successful PlayStation and Xbox devices he’s helped people secure. “I’m at this crossroads where I have a lot of people who have gotten a console,” he said, estimating the number to be somewhere close to 150,000 successful purchases. “I need to cater to them, but I need to cater to a lot of people who still haven't gotten one.”

Ritz feels similarly, saying it’s the human connection he has with viewers on Twitch and in personal interactions through direct messaging that helps motivate him to keep growing his channels. “I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished in one year on my own despite not being the biggest fish in the pond when it comes to name recognition and follower count. My followers appreciate the time I take to follow up with live information on drops and what’s happening in the market,” Ritz said. “I really value all the lives I’ve touched and helped out during this rough spot in history.”

Going forward, Swider said he plans to expand beyond the restock business and into building his own full-blown service journalism operation, with reviews and recommendations of new products and the best deals he can find. “I do plan on continuing hard-hitting journalism on The Shortcut. I think the reason you see a lot of scammy pages on top tech websites is because they put their affiliate marketing teams in charge of their restock stuff,” Swider said.

When this is all over — which may not be for quite some time, according to current estimates — Swider plans to move on to what he sees as the next big service journalism story, whether it’s about retail, gaming or another topic entirely.

“When I stop getting 100,000 people clicking on my links, when that starts to drop to 10,000 to 5,000, I’ll feel like not as many people need it,” he said. “And when I go to Best Buy and I see the PS5 sitting on a store shelf and nobody is pushing over each other to get it, I’ll know my job is done.”

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