The $6,000 Campout
From the night of November 15 through the morning of November 17, 2006, I sat outside of a Best Buy in search of a windfall profit. It did not go as planned.
With each new iPhone comes photos of people lined up down the block, usually days in advance of the release. Some are paid to hold a spot, but most just can't wait to get their hands on a shiny new device with a slightly larger screen.
This kind of behavior has become the norm for early adopters willing to shell out top dollar for the latest and greatest in mobile tech. But eight years ago, it was a practice reserved almost exclusively for ruthless capitalists.
In 2006, I was a 20-year-old college sophomore with a perfect eBay rating. Few descriptions fit as comfortably within the "profiteer" circle of a Venn diagram.
The product of our desire was not some silly phone. It was the Sony PlayStation 3 — the most anticipated console in gaming history. In addition to the obscene hype around the PS3's capabilities, it was expected very few would be available at launch. And if there's one thing I learned from my economics classes, it's that Demand + Scarcity = stand outside and get that money.
With the price of early release units soaring on eBay, it became clear this opportunity was not to be missed.
A Friday launch date near the beginning of fall break made it easier to convince my parents that class was worth skipping. Even easier to coerce was my friend Kyle, who was just as interested in the experience as he was the money.
Two days before launch, we scouted our local Best Buy to get a feel for their line rules and potential inventory. We stopped the first employee we saw, and nodded obediently as he told us they would allow the line to start forming at 10:00 AM the next day.
Apparently, this was all we needed to hear. "If no one shows up until 10:00," we thought, "who is going to stop us from getting there at 6:00?" It was a perfect plan, and we would be first in line. Our checks may as well have been in the mail at that point.
I returned home for one last night as a broke college student. A deep sleep awaited in my own bed. The next morning, I planned to see my dad off to work, finish a full breakfast, then show him how money is really made in 2006.
A phone call changed all that.
At about 10:15 PM, another enterprising friend told me about the line already forming outside Best Buy. "A dozen or so people," he said, before taking his chances on another store 30 miles away.
My dream of sleeping on a dorm room cot stuffed with $1 bills — weeks in the making — was suddenly in serious jeopardy. With no regard for the delicate screen, I slapped shut my Motorola Razr and headed to the store.
When my '95 Jeep Cherokee finally screeched into the parking lot, I found at least a dozen people seated with their backs to the wall. Some had tents, a few others had chairs, and all had sleeping bags with pillows. I had a coat. And a hat.
I walked to the end of the line as if my dreams did not hang in the balance, as if the next year of my life would not be defined by whether or not I left this store with a PlayStation 3. My hat, proudly displaying a Kansas City Chiefs logo, was designed more for style than warmth. My coat did not soften the sting of the jagged cinder blocks that made up the store's wall. My jeans, thinned from years of wear, did not provide much protection from the blowing wind or concrete dusted with snow.
This would be the most uncomfortable night of my life.
I woke up with the sun the next morning, having barely slept. For five hours I laid on my side, knees pulled close to my chest, arms folded inside my shirt and head buried in the neck of my jacket. The two guys ahead of me made a friendly joke about my lack of preparation, and I laughed along with them, mostly to get my blood flowing.
By then several others had staked out spots behind me, all with sleeping bags and chairs. In a room full of kids with notebooks and pens on the first day of school, I forgot my backpack.
An hour before the store opened, two employees emerged from their bastion of warmth and carpeting to acknowledge our presence. These Messengers controlled our fates. Would I be leaving the line in 24 hours with a ticket to prosperity?
Some important context is needed to understand what happened next. There were two versions of the PlayStation 3 to be released — one of which had a greater memory capacity (60 GB) than the other (20 GB). While the difference in retail price was just $100, the value of the larger device on the secondary market was much greater than the 20 GB version.
I really needed a 60 GB PlayStation 3.
"We have twenty 60 GB systems, and thirty-two 20 GB systems," the elder Messenger said. "We're going to count you off now."
This was it. I had a rough idea of where I was in line, but some were in tents so it was tough to be sure. I counted faster than The Messengers made as they their way down our line. One, two, three...sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen...twenty.
I counted again.
Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Twenty. I was the twentieth person in line. I was the twentieth person in line?
"Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty..." The Messenger confirmed it. I would soon be rich.
With my fortune assured, the next step was to acquire sustenance. The duo behind me agreed to hold my spot — a four-foot gap of concrete between two tailgate chair armrests — while I walked across the street to Starbucks.
Under an overcast sky, through howling morning winds and across a busy six-lane street, I returned to the same spot with a cookie and a cup of hot chocolate. Hardly a full breakfast, but enough to keep my mind off the cold and on the money.
And so we sat. More people with chairs and tents and space heaters lined up behind. There we still 24 hours left, twelve of which I would spend hiding my face from the wind and potential acquaintances walking into the store to shop like normal people.
This freezing wait would have been more bearable had Kyle joined me the night before. Asleep by the time I arrived, he was disappointed to wake up to several missed calls and texts. While his lunchtime visit lifted my spirits, it was the full-length Carhartt he brought with him that lifted my core body temperature.
Fairly confident there would be no ice forming in or around crucial organs, my concern shifted to the extremities. As usual, the shoes I had on were stylish and rare, but they also included a good bit of mesh, which left my toes feeling as if they had accidentally been pressed against dry ice. When I crouched it felt as if I was floating.
As the afternoon dragged along, hundreds of people — peers, couples, parents, children — went in and out of Best Buy. Most of them were confused by the line and all judged its participants. So I sat, alone, thinking of how I would spend my thousands.
Toward the end of the day, different Messengers appeared. One of them held a stack of tickets. One of them held our money.
After more than twenty hours sitting, standing and laying in freezing temperatures, we were ready to have physical vouchers for our dreams. From there, the remaining 840 minutes would surely fly by.
As the new Messengers made their way down the line, something felt weird. The seventeen from yesterday wasn't the seventeen of today. Neither was the eighteen, or the nineteen, or...
Was my mind playing tricks? Had the counting part of my brain frozen solid? Was there a new number between nineteen and twenty I wasn't aware of?
"Here you go, twenty-one." The new Messenger handed me a ticket that may as well have been smeared with the blood of my childhood pets.
There it was, in thick black Sharpie. A two, disgustingly placed next to a one. Printed on the paper was the ugliest combination of numbers and letters I could imagine: "20 GB."
I turned around to see the confused face of the kid behind me as he accepted his ticket. "Weren't you twenty-first yesterday?" I asked, knowing the answer.
Throughout the day, I had been counting to make sure there were still nineteen people in front of me. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't exact. Families, friends and yes, even girlfriends paid visits to our line. Some hung out in tents and others kept their distance, afraid of being associated with such an absurd group of people.
I didn't commit to memory every face from the morning. It turned out I should have.
The guys ahead of me acknowledged the development, while the two behind were a little more upset at the injustice. None had much incentive to rock the boat. I was alone, the only person disappointed by his ticket. The only person cheated out of thousands of dollars.
When a Nissan Murano pulled into the lot an hour or so later, my father and brother looked on as I trudged toward the back seat. The line didn't mean much at that point, least of all to me.
I slammed the door shut. "What the hell is wrong?" Tim Sr. asked, layering many questions at once. Kevin offered a pillow and extra jacket. I started to cry.
I would be hard-pressed to think of a time my father has been more ashamed to have given me his name than that moment. Here was his son, willing to risk frostbite in exchange for $6,000, dropping tears on his leather seats, explaining something about a video game and how money that didn't exist was already gone.
Tim Sr. convinced me to stick it out in the same way you agree with someone just so they'll stop talking to you. I was still in line to make $500 or so off the lesser system, which was more than I was worth at the time. Down, but not out.
I got out of the car, leaving the pillow and jacket.
I returned to the line populated by savage profiteers and desperate college students, none of whom seemed eager to reveal the identity of The Deceiver. The deed had been done. There was nothing I could do.
With tickets in hand, we were free to mill around throughout the night. No one really slept, probably because they were either too excited or too cold.
By that point I had become a minor celebrity among the campers. "Tell them what happened to you," they'd say. "This is Tim, The Guy Who Got Screwed."
The excitement level rose with the sun for 98% of the people in line. Instead of having to wait until the normal opening time of 10:00 AM, we were allowed to enter the store at 6 a.m. I passed through a queue with tables on either side, picking up two games in hopes of bolstering my eBay listing. No one in America was less excited to be holding a PlayStation 3 that day.
With tens of thousands of consoles hitting eBay on the same morning, urgency was key. After the early adopters won their units, the money would dry up. The longer I held onto my stupid 20 GB version, the less it would be worth.
Luckily, those were the wild west days of eBay, when 24-hour auctions for expensive items were still allowed. I began the listing with a low starting price, clear photos and plenty of keywords. Within minutes, there were bids and watchers. So, I went to sleep.
Sony PS3 20 GB PlayStation 3 NEW console system IN HAND!
The next day, with just minutes left in the auction, the price crept up into the $1200 range. A muted celebration took place as my family gathered around to watch the seconds tick away. I would be rewarded at least $500 profit for my efforts.
I sent an invoice to the lucky winner, making sure they knew what a great deal they were getting. Almost immediately, I received a response:
"I'm so sorry, I thought this was a 60 GB system! I would never pay that much for a 20 GB!" The winner was a woman hoping to score a Christmas present for her son. She would not be paying for my PlayStation 3.
For the second time in two days, my dreams had been dashed. The window for major profits had closed — prices were already falling, and the demand would not be the same the next day.
So, with a groundbreaking gaming console still in the box and gathering dust, I decided to wait. Hoping to capitalize on procrastinating parents, I listed it again just before Christmas.
By then, Sony restocked both versions of the console. With $700 (plus tax) invested in my get-rich-quick scheme, I sold my console and two games for a grand total of $724. After 36 hours sitting outside in freezing temperatures with no tent, no blanket, no chair, no food, no pillow, and no heat source, I had no dollars to show for it.
* * *
That's it. That's the story. There is no happy ending. Perhaps one day I'll find an important lesson here to pass along to my kids. Something about economics or how life isn't fair. For now, I only have a bit of advice for college students hoping to make a quick buck: Go to school in a warm climate.