Santa tried hard, but there's no Wii under the tree

December 25, 2006|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,Sun reporter

Sunday, Dec. 17, 1:45 a.m.: I pull into the parking lot of the Target in Abingdon, haul a folding chair and sleeping bag from my car, and approach a few folks near the entrance. The chilly night air casts a fog around the sodium vapor lights on the nearly deserted lot. The store is due to open in about six hours.

"You here for the Wii?" someone asks. "You're too late."

Thousands of children will wake this morning, hearts racing, and dash to their living rooms to find ... cash or a gift card redeemable for the elusive Nintendo Wii or Sony PlayStation 3.

It won't be the stuff of screaming video scenes or Kodak moments. But the kids should know it wasn't for Santa's lack of trying. Rudolph's nose couldn't save the day again. No, this year presented a quandary more daunting than a Christmas Eve blizzard: a video game shortage.

At least I assume that will be the situation in many households, based on what occurred a week ago in the chilly pre-dawn at several Target stores in Harford County. And at Toys "R" Us. And at Best Buy.

1:55 a.m.: The folks outside the Abingdon Target told me they'd begun getting in line at 10 or so that Saturday night. The manager had appeared about 11 p.m. to announce that he'd received only 18 Wii machines in his latest shipment. Sometime after midnight, the 18th person had arrived in line and kindly informed all later arrivals that they'd be waiting for nothing. I got back in my car and weighed whether to return to my warm bed - or search for another store.

During the pre-dawn Dec. 17, roughly 200 people in Harford camped outside several of the major electronics and discount stores that expected fresh shipments of the Nintendo Wii. Those lines were repeated at stores throughout the region, so it's likely that 1,000 people in Greater Baltimore spent the night outdoors that weekend.

2:05 a.m.: I roll down my car window in front of the Bel Air Target.

"Anyone know how many machines have been delivered?" I ask the roughly 20 folks camped out in front. Nope, they reply. I park my car and unload my gear at the end of the line toward the dark side of the store. I add my name to the impromptu sign-up sheet that someone near the front of the line created, a wise move of self-interest and crowd control. I am No. 22.

These Bedouin villages of strip-mall suburbia formed on other nights, too, dating back to last month, when Nintendo released the Wii and Sony Corp. the PlayStation 3.

It was more of a tease than a release. Neither company produced enough. They didn't work out the bugs ahead of time. The machines were priced ridiculously high for child's play - at least $500 for the PlayStation, which made $250 for the Wii seem reasonable. Worst of all, they launched them so close to the holidays there was scant time to find one. There should be a law against that for the sake of parents. Maybe the new Congress can go to work on that.

3 a.m.: The crowd at the Target is not particularly young, certainly not like the kind seen camping for rock concert tickets or to be the first into some sci-fi epic. There are several twentysomethings toward the front, but the folks around me are in their 40s, 50s, perhaps even 60s, and some seem poorly dressed for the wait. People offer each other extra blankets, coats and chairs to make it through the night.

I didn't know much about the Wii except that it's pronounced "we," that it was one of only two things on my 12-year-old son Austin's holiday list, and that some folks who have it say they like it. It requires players to jump around and make the motions of the games they're playing, like bowling or baseball. The maker is replacing the handles that apparently detached too easily and caused some people to fling their controllers into the television by accident. I knew less about the PlayStation except that it costs $500 or $600, depending on the model, which is all I needed to know.

Like everything that's scarce, you can find either of these on eBay or other auction Web sites if you're willing to pay double or triple the price.

4 a.m.: It's mind-boggling - not that roughly seven newcomers an hour have been showing up and getting in line at this Target, or that they've reported similar lines at other chain stores across the highway and miles away in Aberdeen and White Marsh, according to family members they've reached by cell phone there.

No, what's amazing is that these people seem happy. So often this season seems more harried than joyous, and here we are, probably the biggest pawns of all this crass commerce, blaring Christmas music from car stereos, sharing conversation, asking whether anyone would like a cappuccino on the next coffee run?

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