How the Covid-19 pandemic caused a global Nintendo Switch shortage

There’s a reason why all the stores are sold out of the popular videogame console.
There’s a reason why all the stores are sold out of the popular videogame console.
Image: Reuters/Pei Li
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Many have turned to their Nintendo Switch to stave off boredom and isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. But if you’re in the market for a new Switch, you’re likely to be disappointed. Much like toilet paper and yeast, there’s now a run on the popular gaming device.

The original Switch console is sold out at major online retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Walmart, and GameStop. Third-party sellers on eBay, Amazon, and CraigsList are selling Switches in mint condition for as much as 50 to 100% over the retail price.

The $299 hybrid videogame console that can connect to your television or be used as a handheld device (hence the “switch” moniker) was already incredibly popular before a large fraction of the world went into quarantine. Last year was the Switch’s most successful ever, with Nintendo shipping 52.48 million units worldwide. This isn’t the first time Switch has had supply shortages, either. When it was first released in 2017, the product flew off store shelves, and desperate buyers had to resort to third-party sellers and pay a premium.

Nintendo is aware of the shortages, but did not comment on the price-gouging. While online storefronts like eBay and Amazon have policies that ban price-gouging, they only apply to essential items such as hand sanitizer. “Nintendo Switch hardware is selling out at various retail locations in the US, but more systems are on the way. We apologize for any inconvenience,” wrote a Nintendo spokesperson in an email to Quartz.

The current shortage isn’t just due to heightened demand. Bloomberg reported in February that a global Switch shortage could come on the heels of coronavirus-related closures in Vietnam and China. Stores in Japan were already running low back in February, and the shortage was expected to hit the US in April. That forecast appears to be true.

An industry analyst from NewZoo noted that the pandemic has hit Nintendo’s supply chain particularly hard for a couple of reasons. Most Nintendo Switch devices are manufactured in Foxconn factories in China, which were shut down due to coronavirus. Even though Foxconn factories have since opened, it could be a while until the Switch is back in stock. “The disruption hits Nintendo especially hard because they are known to barely produce enough to meet the demand, often selling out devices even under normal circumstances,” wrote NewZoo senior market analyst Tom Wijman.

NPD videogame industry analyst Mat Piscatella noted in a tweet yesterday that Switch stock in the US was looking spotty, with most stores sold out and shipment dates as late as mid-April. Users on the Nintendo Switch subreddit noted their struggles in purchasing the Switch, and complained that physical stores of major retail chains like Target and Walmart sold out.

As countries around the world go into lockdown, sales of everything from game consoles to physical games are spiking. In the first week of Italy’s lockdown in March, console sales jumped by 84% according to data from ISFE, Europe’s videogame trade agency. In Spain, sales surged by 27.7% in the first week of lockdown, and 66.1% in the second week. In France, console sales spiked by a whooping 140.6% during the first week of lockdown.

Although the figures include consoles from Xbox and Playstation, Switch seems to be the console of choice at the moment. Back in January, the Switch accounted for more than half (52%) of all console sales in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia, according to figures from ISFE.

There’s also the Animal Crossing effect. Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons on March 20, just as schools in many countries had shut down due to the pandemic, and around the same time that US states such as California and New York issued stay-at-home orders.

While the pandemic has delayed the launches of albums and movies, it’s been business as usual for the gaming industry. New Horizons sold more copies in its first week in Japan and the UK than any other single Switch title in history. The New York Times published an essay entitled, “Why Animal Crossing is the Perfect Way to Spend Quarantine,” and the game has been embraced by celebrities from Brie Larson to Lil Nas X. Playing Animal Crossing while under quarantine has inspired memes, TikToks, and entire think pieces.

And while stocks of the Switch may be down, Nintendo stock appears to be immune to the wider coronavirus stock market crash. At the time of publication, its stock is trading at roughly the same levels as last November. At a time when much of the world craves a distraction and is isolated from friends and family, Nintendo’s games appear to offer an easy escape.

If you’ve delayed your purchase of a Switch, don’t despair. Most versions of the Switch Lite, a cheaper handheld version of the console, are still in stock. And if you were hoping to just play Animal Crossing, there’s always Pocket Camp, the free-to-play mobile app.  You’ll still be able to get your Animal Crossing fix, and can spend that extra money on essential items.

Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated you can play New Horizons on PC and Mac.