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Consoles being packaged up and moved through a factory Illustration: Wren McDonald for Polygon

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Shipping consoles isn’t the problem — there just aren’t enough of them

The resale market is booming, however

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Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

There are not enough PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X units to go around. Consoles — and console bundles worth around $800 — go up on store websites sporadically, but then those websites, like Walmart and Target, crash instantly. A lucky few will get a console into their carts, and an even smaller number will be able to actually check out. And if you do get an order placed, there’s always the chance that your retailer of choice cancels it.

Whether it’s out-clicking bots or actual, eager customers, it’s been a thing to get a console this month. And as the holiday season begins, it may get even harder. Demand is high, and it’s going to stay high.

It’s so high that people are buying and selling consoles on eBay for exorbitant sums; PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X systems are selling for more than triple their retail prices, according to a Business Insider report on the resale market. In mid-November, Microsoft chief financial officer Tim Stuart said that Xbox Series X shortages could continue into April. Likewise, Sony Interactive Entertainment president Jim Ryan told a Russian news outlet last week that “everything is sold.”

“Absolutely everything is sold,” Ryan said. “Everything in Russia will be sold, there’s no doubt about that. I’ve spent much of the last year trying to be sure that we can generate enough demand for the product. And now in terms of my executive bandwidth, I’m spending a lot more time on trying to increase supply to meet that demand.”

a PlayStation 5 sitting horizontally next to an Xbox Series X, photographed on a dark gray background Photo: Henry Hargreaves for Polygon

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which is surging once again in the United States, has had an influence on all parts of the industry, from game development and planning to shipping logistics and distribution. All of these complications have their part in the perceived shortage of consoles, lest we forget this has been one of the biggest console launches in history. Both companies have claimed that their launches were the biggest ever, but did not provide sales numbers. The gaming industry has already been scaling up since 2013 when the previous generation debuted, but the number of interested customers may also have increased dramatically because of the pandemic. Xbox boss Phil Spencer noted this — the accelerated growth of gaming — in a recent interview with The Verge: “I think we’ve seen the acceleration of some of the timelines and trends in gaming over the last six months. We’ve definitely accelerated maybe a year or two in terms of adoption of some of this.”

More people are stuck inside looking for things to do, and gaming fills that space. According to research firm Nielsen, gaming is “at an all-time high during COVID-19.” Understandably, many of these gamers want the new consoles. A Best Buy executive said Tuesday on a quarterly earnings call that demand for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles has been “heightened” due to quarantine measures keeping people at home.

It’s hard to say how much higher demand actually is now, compared to what it was seven years ago when the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released; CNN and others reported in 2013 that consoles were in short supply back then, too. Regardless of whether demand is higher now than it was in 2013, there still aren’t enough consoles to go around. Sony’s Ryan told the Washington Post in September that the company had more PlayStation 5 consoles ready for sale this holiday season than the number of PlayStation 4 units in 2013. Clearly, that wasn’t enough. Despite increased production numbers, Sony still can’t meet demand.

The pandemic has touched every part of the console production and distribution process. Online sales have already been overloaded. And now, there’s the holiday season, which was already chaotic every year before the pandemic and without a console launch. Retailers are having trouble getting consoles in hand to deliver to customers — and once they do, the holiday increase could create “delays and chaos” (a so-called “shipageddon”), according to the New York Times.

a man wearing a mask carries a PlayStation 5 out of a store
A satisfied customer walks out of a store in Seoul with a PS5.
Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

“Basically, every retailer has had Cyber Monday-level volumes on their website since March,” retail expert Jason Goldberg told Polygon. “Normally, we have a year to prepare for Cyber Monday. This year, we had a spike without any preparation. And now we have a holiday spike on top of that spike. And then on top of that spike is all this enhanced demand for consoles this year. The assessment so far is that nobody’s done very well.”

Console shipping in the U.S. went relatively well, for people who were able to snag early pre-orders. Many consoles were delivered on launch day, with others receiving theirs shortly afterward. After launch, the problem is with even having the opportunity to buy a console.

In the U.K., the console shipping process seemed a bit rougher: Amazon is reportedly investigating claims that PlayStation 5 customers were sent “cat food and kitchen equipment” instead of the console, according to Forbes. The company says that this happened to “a small proportion of these orders.” Also in the U.K., video game retailer Game is having issues with delivery delays. In a message published last week, Game said the “volume” and “size of the product” were to blame for delivery problems. The company didn’t say how many orders were affected by these delays.

It had been hard enough to get a console pre-order before launch, but as we approach the holidays, it’s just going to get worse, according to Goldberg. “The harder thing is going to be people that didn’t pre-order and still are trying to get something for the holiday season,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty slim pickings.”

Console shipping delays might not be that huge of a problem — because people can hardly get their hands on an order. This is markedly different from the console launch in 2013. If you weren’t able to get an online pre-order back then, you could show up to a retail store and wait in a line in hopes of purchasing a console. Because of the pandemic, that’s largely not an option now: In-person shopping is not happening this year. Many retailers opted out of having walk-in customers for the console launch, with some extending that even further into the holiday season. Best Buy said it won’t sell consoles in stores until 2021, meaning that online shopping is the only way to go. GameStop announced it’ll limit stores to four consoles each — two Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles — a very limited supply. It perhaps feels more frustrating with an almost entirely online system, where you can’t just stake your claim with a place in line. (Unless you’re at Sony’s PlayStation Direct page, which has a virtual queue, although it’s not exactly transparent about where you stand in it.)

The larger problem here isn’t necessarily the same as the “holiday shipageddon” the New York Times cites. There are not tons of consoles overwhelming post offices everywhere. The problem is, there is a shortage of consoles to order or send out — at least until Microsoft and Sony finish producing more.