Game consoles are always in demand shortly after launch, but the demand for Sony’s PlayStation 5 right now is unique. It’s a major upgrade over Sony’s previous generation of gaming device, coming at a time when even those who might not think of gaming as their first choice of hobby are spending more hours than ever at home and indoors. Plus, of course, it’s the start of the holiday shopping season.
It’s not a surprise that the console sold out months in advance of its November 12 release, especially since it’s built around a supply chain that’s been squeezed by the pandemic. A limited quantity has since trickled out—but when it does, mega-retailers, including Walmart and Best Buy, have seen their websites crash under the weight of the demand for the product. Those who have managed to snag a console have to decide between keeping it or taking it to the thriving resale market on eBay, where one with a suggested retail price of $499 can easily fetch $800 or more. On the retail tracking site NowInStock.net, gamers and parents looking to grab one during the minutes-long windows when the consoles are available wade through a comments section with nearly 300,000 posts, looking for news that an electronics store in Atlanta has a handful in stock, or that Costco has a members-only bundle offering a console and accessories. (On the page for the latest Xbox, which launched November 10, demand is more muted, with a fraction of the interest.)
Given the pandemic, retailers have limited the avenues through which customers can purchase the PS5. On the console’s launch day, Sony restricted sales to online orders only. Best Buy announced in early November that the gaming device wouldn’t be available for in-store purchase until sometime after the holidays, ostensibly to reduce in-store crowding. Walmart announced its Black Friday sale of the console as an online exclusive that begins at 8 p.m. Central the night before Thanksgiving. It’s part of a Black Friday trend this year: the traditional “doorbusters” designed to get people into the store in the wee hours of the morning have been replaced by web-only deals. You can still line up at Walmart or Target the morning after Thanksgiving, but if you want a bargain price on a giant TV or a PlayStation 5, the only way to get it will be through the stores’ websites and apps.
And then there’s GameStop.
The North Texas gaming company bucked the retail industry this holiday season as the only major chain that’s offering the PS5 as an in-store exclusive. If you’ve struck out trying to grab a console in the limited online releases, GameStop is encouraging gamers to stop refreshing apps and instead queue up in person at their stores. It’s a curious pivot eight months into a worsening global pandemic, made more surprising by the fact that it seems to contradict the company’s previous commitment to customers: on a link at the top of the store’s website that reads “your safety is our number one concern,” a letter instructs customers to “Come shop with us the way that makes you feel the safest”—unless, of course, they want the most in-demand item, in which case they’ll need to line up at the store.
At some GameStop locations, that process has already started.
— Jimmy (@Jameskellerman9) November 25, 2020
Last night I swung by our local GameStop (yes, I masked up) & when I walked in I saw this tarp. I asked the store manager why the tarp was outside and he said it was a dad & his two young kids that ha been camping outside since Monday for a #PS5… Yes, in a pandemic. #SMH pic.twitter.com/fEm12gLvCm
— Macksimus (@MacksimusPryme) November 25, 2020
— Greg Kutsop (@GKutsop) November 24, 2020
GameStop didn’t return multiple requests from Texas Monthly to answer our questions about the in-person sales: What safety measures will be in place for customers waiting in line? How did the company determine that this was the right time to reintroduce limited-quantity doorbusters? (Each store is guaranteed a minimum of two consoles, though it doesn’t say which locations, if any, will have more.) In short—why is GameStop doing this?
Because GameStop is keeping quiet, we don’t know the answers to those questions. We do know, however, that this has been an especially rough year for the gaming retailer, which was struggling even before the pandemic. The company closed two hundred stores in 2019 and announced three hundred more permanent closures this March, even before the duration and toll of the pandemic became clear. (GameStop also temporarily closed more than three thousand stores during COVID-19 and posted a $165 million loss in June.) The chain’s ability to survive into the future has been in doubt for years, as the gaming industry has focused increasingly on downloads and streaming. Sony released two models of the PlayStation 5—in addition to the standard $499 edition, there’s also a $399 version that doesn’t even include a disc drive for customers to insert a physical game like one they might buy at GameStop.
The future isn’t really on GameStop’s side, in other words, even as the company has aggressively worked to stay relevant in a world where physical media is becoming less vital. In 2019, GameStop sought to transform its stores into local hubs for competitive gaming and tapped into fan nostalgia for retro games, building its brand around the “cultural gaming experience“—a plan that was disrupted by the pandemic. In a letter published by the Wall Street Journal this month, major GameStop investor RC Ventures urged the company’s board of directors to “evolve into a technology company that delights gamers and delivers exceptional digital experiences—not remain a video game retailer that over-prioritizes its brick-and-mortar footprint and stumbles around the online ecosystem.”
The launch of the PlayStation 5 represents a huge opportunity for GameStop in an otherwise challenging year. The business model that made the company such a success before the widespread adoption of digital-only games—getting diehard gamers to see its stores as a destination where they’ll hand over cash in exchange for a bag full of merchandise—is not where the future of the industry lies, but while demand for the console is high, it can drive customers to their stores. Retailers like Walmart and Target, with diversified product lines and robust digital sales, are in a stronger position.
Customers, though, are in the same spot everywhere: living through a pandemic, where spending hours queued up with a group of strangers—even outdoors, at this point—poses a real risk to their health. We don’t know for sure why GameStop decided to buck the industry trend by selling consoles as in-person exclusives, but we do know that doing so is a lot less safe than allowing customers to purchase them from their living rooms.