Exploring Why the PlayStation Vita Is Suddenly Out of Stock

While a sales surge is unlikely, there are few solid answers to explain the sudden hardware shortage.

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During a recent episode of the Giant Bomb podcast, a reader called in to ask about where to find a PlayStation Vita. Despite a hardware update back in May, he hasn't been able to find one in any nearby stores. That raised our curiosity as well, so we started tracking availability of the system at the beginning of the week.

Sony has already phased out the older version of the Vita in favor of the slimmer redesign, so the only way to get the new Vita currently is through the $200 Borderlands bundle. It hasn't announced a standalone hardware offering, but the story is the same everywhere: new PlayStation Vitas (both the old version and the new) are unavailable online and in stores across the US.

  • GameStop -- sold out online and within a 100 mile radius of San Francisco. (Naturally, you can buy a refurbished model now.)
  • Target -- sold out
  • Best Buy -- sold out
  • Walmart -- sold out
  • Even Amazon isn't selling the systems directly. You can only purchase Vitas through third-party sellers, though they're selling them at MSRP and are "fulfilled by Amazon."

Speaking with sales associates at individual retailers, no one seemed sure when they'd get their next shipment of Vitas, and some stores reported not having received new systems for weeks. Does that mean that the Vita has become so popular in the US now that it can't be kept in stock, or is the redesign getting phased out before it even started?

Sony commented on the issue, but not with any solid information. A representative for the company said, "We're seeing healthy consumer demand for PS Vita globally, particularly in markets like Japan. The U.S. launch of the slimmer and lighter PS Vita has generated strong interest among gamers, and we’re working to replenish supply here to ensure continued momentum leading into the holidays." And an official GameStop representative was more bullish, but similarly vague, saying, "The system has sold better than expected, and we are working closely with Sony to receive more to fulfill customer demand."

"The most likely reason for the shortage is that they want to replace the existing unit with something different, and they weren’t ready to announce it at E3." -- Michael Pachter

But just saying that there's a rise in demand without providing any hard numbers or a reason is especially curious in Sony's case. The new hardware launched in May, which lent a modest bump to the Vita's sales, but there hasn't been a new high-profile game in the intervening weeks that would explain the sudden surge in sales for a console that's otherwise received a lukewarm reception in the US.

Games industry analyst Michael Pachter agrees. In an email exchange with GameSpot, he wrote, "I think it is exceedingly unlikely that demand has spiked, and am not familiar with any killer games that recently launched that could spur demand. That means that the shortages must be supply driven, meaning that demand is constant (and weak), and supply has declined."

It's possible that supply chain issues have limited supply in some way, whether that's a component shortage or a change in manufacturer. But that's also an issue that would lead to more widespread shortages--a quick check at UK retailer Game and Japanese retailer Yodobashi Camera doesn't show the same lack of availability as in the US. And that's despite the Vita's continuing, unabated sales success in Japan; according to data from Media Create, Vita was the number two best-selling console last week there. Pachter adds that supply problems are unlikely because, "Sony has been manufacturing the Vita for two years, and the supply chain was in place long ago."

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For Pachter, the shortage could signal another hardware revision. "The most likely reason for the shortage is that they want to replace the existing unit with something different, and they weren’t ready to announce it at E3. It is possible that they have found a way to make the Vita more cheaply, and are thus able to cut price further. I think their comment about 'continued momentum leading into the holidays' suggests that they intend to keep the Vita alive, and think it is probably just a new model coming that caused the disruption."

That doesn't mean we'll necessarily get something on the scale of the May Vita redesign. The issue could be as simple as replacing an internal chip or other hardware component with either a cheaper or more efficiently produced version--something that could cause a restart of the manufacturing process, but not entail a cosmetic redesign.

Sony has said previously that the Vita will be getting less first-party support in the future, but that doesn't mean that Sony will try to phase out the system. While the company has had experience with hardware flops that just get quietly pushed under the rug (remember the PSP GO?), the Vita's success in Japan alone ensures that it will continue production. The hardware didn't take center stage at E3, but Sony seems to be changing the system's focus to better complement the PS4, rather than count on it (in the US at least), to stand on its own. And Sony has yet to squash rumors of a possible PS4/Vita bundle.

We'll hopefully have hardware sales information on the Vita next week when the NPD releases its data, which will provide greater context to the Vita's lack of availability. But it's more likely that the those numbers will just show the same modest but continual growth the Vita has experienced in recent months. The real reason for the Vita's sudden disappearance from store shelves will, for now, have to wait to be uncovered.

Justin Haywald on Google+

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