Posted January 3, 2018 4:54 p.m. EST

Jennifer Jordan refused to be outmaneuvered in the ruthless holiday hunt for Fingerlings, clingy robotic monkeys that millions of children suddenly want wrapped around their fingers.

The Houston real estate broker routed in-stock alerts to her cellphone and kept watch for notifications that retailers had received shipments of this season's must-have toy. As the purchasing window narrowed, Jordan went online after every alert, only to find that the virtual shelves had emptied as fast as they had filled.

The breakthrough came on Black Friday, when Amazon released batches of Fingerlings every couple of hours. She pounced as her screen lit up, scoring two for her young son.

"I logged in within minutes of getting the alert," she said. "You had to be quite fast."

As e-commerce sales again surge this holiday season, harried shoppers increasingly have adopted more sophisticated means of finding online the hot toys that once required an after-hours trip to the store and a hearty supply of patience. The plastic, battery-powered Fingerlings have proved especially elusive, forcing the most competitive parents to monitor in-stock alerts and price trackers to avoid expensive markups or worse: disappointing an expectant child.

"It's a much easier way to passively shop for something when you need it," said Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing at DealNews. "It can be almost like a full-time job, trying to check every store every day."

The competition is fierce and sometimes unfair, parents say. The trend toward such buying technology has also made it easier for "scalpers" to flood websites with inventory-snatching robots that deplete the supply before human shoppers place their orders.

The scalpers have capitalized on this year's Fingerlings shortage. The $15 toy, sold out at most major retailers, lists on eBay for as much as $50.

"They are actually starting to target items you'd never think of," said Omri Iluz, CEO of PerimeterX, a website security company that offers bot-defense technology for retailers.

'One of the hotter items'

The Fingerlings scarcity is a simple problem of supply and demand. WowWee, the Canadian robotics company that designed them, said in a statement that their popularity surpassed expectations and it anticipates more shortages even as it works with suppliers to keep them in stock.

Justin Vavrick, the one-man force behind, has used much of his programming power this season to monitor Fingerlings and push out alerts when Amazon, Target, Walmart and GameStop replenish their inventories. The self-employed programmer in Pennsylvania in 2005 created the website to track hard-to-find items such as video games, electronics and, eventually, toys.

On Monday his tracker showed that Boris, a bright blue Fingerling with a tuft of orange hair, came in stock at Walmart at 4:22 p.m.

By 4:29 p.m., Boris was sold out.

"They're definitely one of the hotter items," Vavrick said.

Vavrick's user base of about 500,000 people has roughly doubled in the past two years as parents, collectors and gamers seek a more convenient way to track hot items. He attributes the site's popularity to the overall growth in e-commerce sales - up nearly 15 percent this season alone - as well as a growing refusal among shoppers to stand in long lines to buy the product du jour.

"Those days are long gone, unless you want an iPhone," he said.

That dynamic has posed a challenge for retailers that now drum up the hype online. E-commerce scalping, once confined to online ticket sales, now affects virtually any retailer with a hot item.

On the day of a product release, as much as 90 percent of website traffic may be generated by bots "waiting to pounce," PerimeterX wrote in a holiday white paper. For instance, when Target released the Super Nintendo NES Classic for pre-order earlier this year, bot traffic crashed the site.

"It has stopped being a problem of specific industries and started being a general retail problem," Iluz said.

Some retailers control for such overwhelming demand by controlling how and where customers make purchases. Toys R Us, for example, decided this year to sell Fingerlings only in stores, requiring parents to make the traditional trek to get them.

"There's more of an opportunity for people to get their hands on one by being there physically," spokeswoman Taylor O'Donnell said.

The company received a shipment of unicorn Fingerlings to its Houston stores on Sunday and opened at 6 a.m. with a one-per-customer limit.

'Sold out everywhere'

Marquita Williams and her husband arrived at the Toys R Us on Old Spanish Trail as soon as the doors unlocked. They had been searching for Fingerlings online for weeks, only to get the same out-of-stock message from every major retailer, and three trips to Toys R Us yielded nothing.

"They're sold out everywhere," Williams said.

Their early-morning determination paid off: They each left with a Fingerling for their 10-year-old daughter.

Jordan, however, hasn't made the odd-hour store trip in years. She last stood in line at Toys R Us at midnight in 2009 to get a ZhuZhu pet, a furry robotic hamster that dominated holiday wish lists that year.

This year, she remained vigilant as her NowInStock alerts came at all hours. She purchased last year's hot toy, the self-hatching Hatchimal, for twice the price on eBay as a tight supply dwindled, a desperation move she refused to repeat,

"Technology is making it a little bit easier," she said.