Cheers erupting around him, Richard Roth stared into the glare of camera lights with the grin of an Olympic champion. He raised his arms, holding over his head his trophy: a new portable gaming device called the Sony PlayStation Portable, or PSP.
Across US time zones, the gadgets went on sale at 12:01am Thursday, and Roth, 23, a supervisor in a local PetsMart, was at the head of the purchase line at the Sony Metreon complex. He had waited for 40 hours on the sidewalk outside, and the fact that he was exhausted and his wallet US$271 (including tax) lighter mattered little at his moment of glory.
"I just wanted to be first," he said.
Which was precisely Sony's point, as it engaged in what has become a favorite tactic of marketers in various lines of business: Hyping a new product by making it available when most people are normally in bed, and acting like those slumbering are missing out.
Retail experts note that the off-hour shopping extravaganza, at midnight or the crack of dawn, has been used to bring out cultish consumers for films (Star Wars, The Passion of the Christ), shoes (Jordan high-tops), video games (Halo 2) and books (Harry Potter and Hillary Rodham Clinton).
"It's become a much more utilized marketing tool over the last three or four years," said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a marketing consulting firm in New York. The message retailers want to send, she said, is: "This is for aficionados. If you're serious, we're serious."
In the case of the Sony PSP, the nation's video game specialty stores opened their doors at midnight to start selling to Americans a gadget introduced last December in Japan. Sony said it hoped by the end of the weekend to sell out the available 1 million units of the handheld PSP, which lets people play games, watch movies and listen to music.
The honor of selling the first PSP to Roth went to Jack Tretton, a 43-year-old executive vice president for Sony Computer Entertainment's North America unit. Tretton said the midnight marketing gimmick provided great free publicity.
Tretton also played up the idea that customers who did not buy in the first hours or days might miss out on getting a PSP in this first allotment. That prospect, at least, was not pure hype, given that Sony has had trouble meeting demand for PSPs in Japan.