Long, cold night likely for Sony's first PSP customers

Dec. 12 could start off uncomfortably for the thousands of people who are expected to want to buy Sony's new handheld PSP (PlayStation Portable) on its launch day.

With just over two weeks to go until the system goes on sale in Japan, many retailers are not accepting advance orders and some of the country's largest electrical retailers said Thursday that they don't plan to take any. What's more, signs point towards demand for the gadget far outstripping supply. This all leaves prospective customers one option: get in line.

Queuing overnight ahead of the release of major computer entertainment hardware is not unusual in Japan. Long lines greeted Sony's PlayStation 2 in 2000, which was the last major game system launch, and lines are also expected next week when Nintendo launches its DS (Dual Screen) console in Japan.

However, the reluctance of retailers to accept advance orders this time around is different. Customers have been able to place Nintendo DS orders for several weeks but the same stores are not taking advance orders for PSP. At retailers big and small the answer has been the same: there are no current plans to accept PSP orders because we have no idea how many we'll be getting from Sony.

Sony says it has already notified major retailers of the number of PSPs they can expect by launch day and that some smaller shops might miss out because demand is far outstripping supply.

"On day one we will be shipping 200,000 units nationwide, which is really not that big of a number," said Yoshiko Furusawa, a spokeswoman for SCEI. "Each retailer's allocation will not be (a lot) so some small retailers might not get an allocation."

After the initial shipment, SCEI is planning to produce a further 100,000 units during each of the remaining three weeks of this year to take total shipments for the Japanese domestic market to 500,000 for this year, she said.

Supply is looking very tight and demand is high, said Pascal Clarysse, marketing manager for Hong Kong-based Pacific Game Technology, which operates the specialist Lik-Sang.com retail Web site for gaming products.

The company has already accepted around 5,000 pre-orders for the PSP and is currently trying to secure as many units as possible before launch day. Because it's based outside of Japan, the company can't order directly from Sony and is forced to work its contacts and acquire the PSP through Japanese distributors.

"There's a huge shortage," said Clarysse. "It's never happened before that before I even confirm my orders, the distributors are telling me my order is too high. I'm asking for 500, which is 10 percent of what I need, and they are telling me it's impossible."

He estimates demand for the PSP is around 25 percent higher than that for the Nintendo DS, which Lik-Sang began shipping over the weekend with the U.S. launch. In contrast to the 200,000 units that Sony plans to have ready for the PSP launch, Nintendo prepared 1 million units of the DS for the U.S. launch and plans to have 300,000 units in stores for the Japanese launch.

An early indicator of demand for the PSP was a charity auction that Sony held in Japan on Wednesday. It offered 500 PSP Value Packs -- which include the player and a memory card, headphones and carrying case -- in an online auction with the proceeds going to help people affected by a recent string of large earthquakes in Japan's Niigata prefecture.

Of the 500 successful bids in the auction, which ran from midnight on Wednesday to midnight on Thursday, the lowest was YEN 50,000 (US$485) and the highest was YEN 338,888. Lucky customers who manage to pick one up in stores on Dec. 12 will pay YEN 26,040.

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Martyn Williams

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