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Seasonal Refrain: Waiting on a Wii
Nintendo Hasn't Made Enough Consoles to Satisfy Demand

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Most years, Marbea Tammaro avoids falling into the holiday trap of shuttling from store to store trying to land the season's hot gift for her children.

But the Fairfax City resident wasn't expecting to learn that one of the hard-to-get items of 2006, the Nintendo Wii game console, is in short supply again. The system first hit the market last November, after all.

Since intensifying her search efforts after Thanksgiving, she's been to a half dozen stores or so. Still, no Wii.

"I don't want to spend all my time looking for this," she said. "I was hoping that I might have taken care of this by now."

The appeal of the Wii has surpassed its maker's most ambitious hopes, with Nintendo increasing its production rates three times this year to try to meet demand. There's no factory problem or component shortage, the company said; it's just a matter of people buying the things as soon as they hit the shelves.

"We have worked our absolute hardest to get production as high as possible," said Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing at Nintendo of America. Kaplan pointed out that the company has shipped 17.5 million units worldwide since April, an amount she termed "a lot."

While its rival console makers, Microsoft and Sony, fought over bragging rights for supremacy on the technological front, Nintendo played the game a different way, and so far it is winning this round of the console wars.

Whereas other game systems require that players know which buttons to mash, Wii users play the system's tennis, golf and boxing games by using intuitive hand motions similar to the ones they would use in real life.

Sales of the Wii recently surpassed those of Microsoft's Xbox 360 console, even though the Xbox has been on the market a year longer than the Wii. Sony's latest PlayStation -- the system some people camped out for a week to buy last year -- has been bringing up the rear in sales.

A couple of years ago, some industry analysts said Nintendo should get out of the console business and focus instead on designing games after its GameCube logged disappointing sales.

Then it made the Wii. Nintendo said it has increased production of the console from 1 million a month to 1.8 million. Analysts, along with some parents and video-game-store employees, said that isn't enough.

You can call the local game stores, but the $250 system will probably not be in stock. Some employees sound as if they are tired of repeatedly answering the same question.

"We have a crowd of people standing in line every day [for the Wii]," said one worker at a Rockville GameStop.

Store workers say they don't know which day the weekly shipment will come in; it can sell out again within minutes of arriving.

Amazon.com didn't have the Wii in stock yesterday. Its partner sellers, however, are offering the device for prices in the neighborhood of $600. It's a similar story on eBay, where the device is offered for $600 to $1,000.

"It's incredible," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a consumer research firm. "I don't ever remember there being a shortage of a product entering its second year."

Is there a conspiracy afoot? Among some frustrated shoppers, there's a belief that Nintendo must be artificially keeping the supply down in order to keep the product high on the buzz meter.

Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, has denied the charge. Fils-Aime has called the shortage, and the accompanying lost sales, a "missed opportunity" and a "disappointment" to the company.

"There is no secret plan to store Wiis in a warehouse to spur demand," he told the technology site CNet.

With its more intuitive controls, the Wii has appealed to an audience that might not normally reach for a video game. There have been a number of news reports this year about people using the console's shake-your-body games to get in shape and about senior citizens in retirement homes organizing tournaments to play the system's bowling game.

"I think even Nintendo has been surprised at how spectacular demand for the Wii has been," said Edward Woo, a game-industry analyst at the securities firm Wedbush Morgan.

Despite its inability to meet that demand, Nintendo might not lose the potential business because the Wii is so different from its competition, Woo said. The Wii is cheaper and has a reputation for developing fewer gory games.

"Someone who is interested in a Wii system will more likely wait, rather than running off and spending $500 on a PS3 or $350 on an Xbox," he said.

Tammaro said she doesn't want to buy one of the other consoles because the hit games on those systems are too violent.

David Beltran-del-Rio, a District resident who doesn't own a gaming system, said he likes the Wii's intuitive touch and fun games and has been looking for it for most of the year.

"Every time I go into a Best Buy, I look, and it's never there," he said.

He'd been tempted to spend about $700 earlier this year on a package of Wii games and an extra controller from Wal-Mart but rejected it as too expensive. Since then, his interest has waned, he said.

"You cool down after you've been waiting a year," Beltran-del-Rio said. But, he added, he'd still buy one -- if he ever sees one available.

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