It's a common complaint in the UK, and probably in most of the rest of the world - Christmas seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. The decorations appeared in some shop windows before Hallowe'en was upon us, you can already buy mince pies and Christmas cake slices in Starbucks, and stores and catalogues have been urging us to consider gift ideas for months. This year, another traditional sign of British Christmas arrived early - namely retail shortages of a Sony console.
It's only the beginning of November, and already it's looking grim for anyone who wants a PlayStation Portable for Christmas. A trawl through London's high street stores will prove fruitless unless you're extremely lucky indeed; a trawl through central London's top retailers last week revealed that not a single unit of the PSP was available. "They come in and go straight back out again," we were told in more than one store. Online, the story is not much better; Amazon cites four to six weeks as its delivery estimate for orders made at the moment.
We can already imagine the outraged headlines as we get closer to Christmas and the mainstream press discover that this year's must-have toy is nowhere to be found - and, of course, when the inevitable ridiculously priced auctions are found on eBay. Even now, almost two months from Christmas, some enterprising - or gouging, depending on how you look at it - London retailers will happily sell you PSP hardware for around twice the standard retail price.
A little shortage, of course, never hurt Sony too badly. Grabbing the headlines and making your product into the most desirable and sought-after toy for Christmas is no bad thing. What every retailer must cross their fingers and pray for, however, is that this year genuinely does see a little shortage, and now the huge shortages which crippled videogame sales last December, as a critical lack of slimline PS2 consoles lopped 2004's traditional winter sales spike off near the root.
One thing is clear; Sony's projection of a worldwide launch for the PSP last Christmas was not merely a bit wide of the mark, but was hugely, vastly inaccurate. Twelve months after the PSP hit retail in Japan and was originally projected to hit retail worldwide, Sony still can't supply ongoing demand for the console, despite the eventual vastly staggered launch.
There's a school of thought which says that as long as the device is selling, in the long run, it doesn't matter - but looking at this Christmas, the potential for frustrated retailers to be sending even more frustrated consumers away empty-handed is worrying. Xbox 360 will also be thin on the ground, and if consumers can't get their hands on either of the hot consoles this Christmas, the money that would have been spent on videogames won't burn a hole in their pockets through to early 20006 - it'll go instead on other desirable products. Expect a lot of new iPods to take the place of PlayStation Portables under Christmas trees this year; revenue that will be permanently lost to the games business.
Besides the immediate worry over Christmas, there's also a wider concern about Sony's overall ability to deliver on its hardware commitments. If the can could miss its targets for the PSP by such a huge margin, what message can the industry take away about the prospects for the launch of the PlayStation 3? Already, many commentators expect the PS3 launch to be a painful process; Sony could do with delivering a little reassurance to its long-suffering partners that it's actually going to improve its performance on launch date and unit targets this time around.