Wii Plays Hard To Get

If a man is known by the company he keeps, Tom Lee must be one heckuva guy. At the height of last year's shopping season, friends from California to England were diligently checking store after store to find the 26-year-old Washington, D.C., software developer the one thing he truly wanted for Christmas: a Nintendo Wii. And since Lee refused to pay the eBay markup (typically double the $250 list price), the global hunt stretched into December with no hope in sight. Then his friend and fellow D.C. resident Sommer Mathis, a 26-year-old documentary filmmaker, scored one of a handful of units remaining from a resupply at the Nintendo World store in New York City. "He was thrilled," says Mathis, "and he promised to shower me with favors over the coming year."

Yet while Lee and his friends revel in the console's simple pleasures, many Wii seekers have been left in the cold. Sony's cutting-edge Playstation 3 was widely expected to be last year's Christmas craze. But when the Wii--as white as a unicorn, and twice as rare--turned out to be the holiday's "it" console, eBay profiteers, parents and children alike were left scrambling to get their hands on the device. (The result: 604,000 Wiis sold in December.) As with such previous Christmas phenomena as the Cabbage Patch Kid, the Beanie Baby and the Tickle Me Elmo doll, those who had to have it were prepared to go to extremes--and not just financial ones. Last week, in Sacramento, Calif., a 28-year-old mother of three entered a local radio station's "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" competition, only to die of water intoxication. Nintendo of America vice president Perrin Kaplan, the company's spokeswoman, offered condolences, stressing that the company had no connection with the promotion.

Unfortunately, the Wii shortages aren't expected to improve any time soon. "We produce a healthy number, with more shipments coming weekly," says Nintendo's Kaplan. "We're not sure what more we could have done to meet such overwhelming demand." Why not simply airlift more stock from Asia, as Sony has done with the Playstation 3? Says Kaplan: "We try to minimize that, as air is costly. We're a profit-oriented company." Indeed, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan projects that Nintendo will gross nearly $2 billion by the end of March from Wii hardware and games. Until the Wii supply problems clear up--probably in March--the profit-oriented folks may be the ones having the most fun of all.