September 22, 2023

When the clock is ticking and your task is to choose the biggest cat from a series of miniature photos of cats, could you do that?

What if a Telfar bag was on the line?

Last week, under the direction of breakout designer Telfar Clemens, the fashion brand released a limited number of new bags in what is known as a “drop”. When that happens, chaos often ensues and the bags sell out within minutes. This time was no exception.

Usually other Telfar fans and dexterity are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of one of these coveted bags. Consumers need to be quick to buy online.

This time around, however, the Telfar hopefuls were puzzled by the captcha tests used on websites to determine whether a visitor (often a consumer) is human or not. They are designed to deter hackers and software programs that perform automated tasks (better known as retail bots).

The captchas seemed very specific – and maybe even tougher than usual. One was a fill-in-the-blank: it asked users to complete the sentence “Not for you – for ___”. (The answer was the Telfar slogan: “Not for you – for everyone.”). Another made the buyer look at several photos of different cats and drag a box around the largest.

Frustrated consumers flooded Twitter with jokes and requests for help solving the puzzles.

“While people answered Captcha questions, bots got the bags! They are really annoying !!! ” wrote Rae Foston, 19, who tried to buy a small red Telfar tote bag, in a direct message. “It’s not that they are difficult, and I understand they have them, but are they really doing their job?”

Jayshawn Williams, 33, also struggled to crack the code. Mr. Williams, who was trying to buy a medium-sized shopping bag, said it took him about five minutes to answer his captcha question.

“When I figured out the answer, I laughed to myself and had a little ‘duh’ moment,” he wrote. (Mr. Williams was also unable to secure a bag.)

But there was a method to this madness. Like many coveted brands that release inventory this way, Telfar has historically looked at automated bots that buy up inventory. The original captcha puzzles were an attempt to fool you – not the people.

“The truth is, people don’t get the bag because they have to pull a box around the cat,” Babak Radboy, Mr. Clemens’ business partner, wrote in a statement to the New York Times. “This means that more people and fewer bots get bags. The reason people can’t get the bag is that at any moment there are tens of thousands more people wanting bags than they are getting bags. “

He defended the new security measures: “It takes time to get things right. Our thinking is long-term. “

In recent years, bots have gotten better and better at breaking the codes traditionally used in these security systems. According to Jason Polakis, a researcher and faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago, simple captchas, especially text-based ones, are easy to bypass.

“As machine learning progresses faster and faster, certain tasks that used to be very difficult for machines (like identifying which images are in a glass of wine) are now within their capabilities. In fact, machines are probably better than the average user for certain tasks, ”Mr Polakis wrote in an email. “As a result, captcha services have made their challenges increasingly difficult to reduce the effectiveness of automated solvers.”

These automated solvers or bots add value to items. Telfar’s shopping bags often end up on resale sites like StockX, Poshmark and Grailed, sometimes in the hands of collectives like Hypernova Group, who claimed to have bought more than 60 percent of Telfar’s stock in one bag last summer. The sweep sparked a reaction from the brand on Instagram: “Telfar is for the people. Not the bots. “

Although many buyers crave simpler captchas, some could still find the humor in it, even though they came out of this drop empty-handed.

“I’ll say I have never come across this cat captcha before and I was amazed. It was kind of fun, ”wrote Ms. Foston. Though the humor came later – “not at the time, because it takes two intense minutes to buy a Telfar,” she wrote.