Shrewd Businessmen and Hardcore Gamers Campout at Wal-Mart

Waiting for one of twelve Playstation 3's at the California, Md. Wal-Mart.  Ken, seated facing camera.  The list of people in the queue taped to window in the background. Melvin Jones seated in foreground. Photo courtesy of Ken's camera.

By David Noss

CALIFORNIA, Md. - What do a dozen or so guys standing, and sitting on folding chairs, in front of Wal-Mart at 8:30 p.m. have in common? Are they on strike? That was my first thought. So, I stopped and asked them. They did exactly what I would have done. They told the strange guy asking a stupid question, “yes.”

“Cool!,” I said as I gave them the thumbs up. What luck I was having. I stumbled upon a real live strike right here in St. Mary’s County in the course of doing my routine shopping chores. I was going to scoop this story for sure.

I asked them a few more questions and a self-elected spokesman happily provided answers.

It didn’t take long until the prank unveiled. They weren’t on strike. They were on a vigil for the new Sony Playstation 3 that is being released on Friday morning.

I liked these guys already. What’s better than messing with the mind of a complete stranger—in a fun and harmless way of course?

I laughed and thanked them and headed out into the parking lot to load up the car. When I got there, I thought to myself, “What’s better than a strike at Wal-Mart?” A bunch of guys camped in front of Wal-Mart waiting to get a Playstation of course. After all, the only other time you've see stuff like this was on TV a week before the new Star Wars movie was set to open. Sure, nobody was dressed like Darth Vader or Chewbacca, but hey, I didn’t have a camera anyway.

I walked back to the gang in front of the store and pitched the story idea to them. They agreed and I headed back into Wal-Mart to buy some news reporter-type tools—a steno pad. Here’s the rest of the story…

Matthew Butler, age 19, was one of the youngest in the group. “I’ve been playing since I’ve been little,” said Butler. “Sixth grade is when I got my first PlayStation.”

Butler was No. 10 in the queue to get a new game system. He had been waiting at Wal-Mart since 6 p.m. the day before. It was approximately 26.5 hours and counting for him.

Sitting next to Butler was Melvin Jones, age 37. Jones and Butler conversed as if they were old friends. When asked how long they had known each other, they told me that they had just met the night before. Jones was No. 11 in line and had arrived just after Butler the day before.

Most people in the group seemed like old friends. Ken, age 35, noted that the people in the group had been very good about helping each other out. He said that there was no problem leaving the line to use the restrooms or get something to eat. “The other guys would hold your place,” he said. Ken was also the self-appointed spokesman for the striking workers I had interviewed previously.

Ken pointed to a list of names taped to the glass window behind him. There were twenty-five people on the list. As people arrived, they put the name on the paper to reserve their place in the queue.

Ken then noted that although there were 25 names on the list, Wal-Mart only had twelve systems. Ken had arrived around 2 p.m. that day and he was No. 17 on the list. If there are 12 systems and Ken was No. 17 in line, why was he bothering to wait? “Sometimes people go home,” he said. “It’s like Gore and Kerry. If they had waited instead of giving up, they might be President today.”

The early bird award for the group went to Mike, age 25. Mike had been the first in line, arriving at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday. When I spoke with him, he was going on 35 hours with approximately 1.5 hours of sleep.

Mike said that the management of Wal-Mart had told the group on Wednesday that they would be permitted to come into the store on Thursday morning at 6:00 a.m—when the store opened—and wait inside until 11 p.m. when they could receive a voucher for one of the 12 available machines. They would then have to come back after opening on Friday morning to claim the actual machine.

Mike said that the wait inside on Thursday morning was short-lived. They went in around 6:00 a.m. as promised and were shown to an isle in the electronics area where most of them promptly fell asleep on the floor. By 7:30 a.m., the management had a change of heart and asked everyone to vacate the store because it had become a “safety issue.” Mike clarified that they were nice about it.

Once back on the street, they were subjected to the weather on a day when southern Maryland was pounded with heavy rains, flooding, high winds, and under watch for a tornado in Charles County. Mike said that the group tried to stay dry under a tarp at the front of the store far away from the doors so as not to inconvenience the customers. However, the wind eventually became too much for the tarp and they were forced to move back under the roofed-over area by the doors.

Mike noted that overall the experience wasn’t too bad. Wal-Mart allowed them to use the restrooms when needed. After the store had closed, the construction workers next door allowed them to use the Porta-Potties. “We have everything we need for camping,” remarked Mike. “We’re right here at Wal-Mart.”

By putting themselves through this endurance test, most people would assume that the guys were all die-hard gamers. In actuality, the group was almost an even split between the gamers and the entrepreneurs. Jones explained that new Playstation 3 system would probably be selling for $1800 on eBay by Friday. The retail price is far less than that. The 20GB system is selling for $500 and the 60GB system retails for $600.

Jones said that he wants to “check it out first” before deciding to keep his or sell it to the highest bidder. He is currently an Xbox 360 owner and fan anyway.

Ken thinks that he will probably keep his if he is lucky enough to have some of the people in front of him bail so that he gets one of the 12 available. Ken claims to have a large collection of older game systems. “I have game systems that go way back,” he said. One of his friends noted that he even has an Atari system.

Chris Sibak, age 27 and No. 4 in line, has already decided to sell his. He said that this is a business opportunity for him. “I don’t have time to play video games,” he said.

The No. 1 man in line, Mike, said that selling it or keeping it depends on how good the system is. “I like playing,” he said. “I don’t play a lot, but when I do, I like to have good things to play.”

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