It’s that time again. Seven years later, new-console season is upon us. The PlayStation 5 may well be the hottest Christmas item of the year, and the Xbox Series consoles are failing to keep up with demand, as well. But this is no ordinary time.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has left its mark on everything. You can’t sit down to enjoy a video game without wondering whether your livelihood is in jeopardy; holiday shoppers can’t leave home without fearing for their safety. The holidays will be different for everyone this year.
For retail workers selling consoles in brick-and-mortar stores, it’s bound to be a strange month.
“I worked on Tuesday — only for a short time. I also worked the night before the Xbox launch, on Wednesday, and I work tomorrow,” a GameStop employee named Ciara tells me. “But the launches are always crazy. I worked the PS4 and Xbox One launches back in 2013, and it was the same situation: sold out instantly, hard to come by during the holidays, scalpers.”
Still, a year like this one — where we’re grappling with the first pandemic in a hundred years — presents a unique set of challenges. Tensions are high; people are afraid for their families’ lives.
“The customers have been a little bit more agitated than previous holiday seasons, but being cooped up at home can do that to people,” Ciara says. “Most customers who come in are respectful of the rules we have in place, but there’s always that one who comes in without a mask and then gets uppity when we ask them to wear one. Most of my coworkers have small children at home, so we’re pretty strict on the mask rule.”
Then there’s the matter of the consoles themselves. Ciara’s location received very few pre-order units. “They were gone within the first hour of the store opening,” she says. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing, naturally. Would there be more in stock at launch? When might another shipment come in after that?
“I was glad PlayStation put out that statement saying they wouldn’t be sending any extras to physical locations,” Ciara says. “It didn’t stop the questions, but at least we had an answer to give.”
Monday night, Ciara’s GameStop had only three Xbox units available for purchase. Folks began camping out in front of the store, so she taped a sign to the door letting people know they had three Xboxes to sell. The first three in line took them home immediately.
On Tuesday at 1 p.m. — the day of the Xbox Series X launch — a customer who’d bought a third-party gift card came in to pick up an Xbox.
“He was very upset,” recalls Ciara. “He wanted a refund for his gift card, but it didn’t work in his favor.” Since he’d bought it from a third party, refunding the man’s money was out of the question. “He was getting more and more upset, but unfortunately it was out of our control.”
Ciara says GameStop employees are crossing their fingers for restocks in time for the holidays, but nothing’s certain yet. “We definitely hope we have some consoles for Black Friday, or our customers might rip us to shreds,” she says. “If we do, it’ll most likely be an extremely limited quantity.”
In the meantime, a lot of the big next-gen launch season is out of retailers’ hands. There are strict guidelines to be followed; there’s limited contact with manufacturers like Microsoft and Sony.
As the mother of a toddler, Ciara makes cleaning a priority while on the clock, spending an hour or more per day sanitizing trade-ins — the pre-owned games customers bring in from their own collections. “We take them in and clean them all before we put them back on the sales floor. My hands are so dry from all the hand sanitizer and cleaning products,” she says.
“We’re doing our best,” she adds. “The pandemic has made things just a bit more difficult for all of us.”
Like many, she hopes to get her hands on a PS5 soon.