What's up with the Wii?

It's been a year and a half since Nintendo's video-game console came out, causing an immediate sensation and instant sellouts, but the plucky little system is still nearly impossible to find in stores.

That point was driven home for me when my neighbor Bruce Norby dropped by a month ago to ask what the deal was. He was hoping to buy a system in time for his five young kids to play over spring break, but their time off from school came and went without a Wii. He and his wife, Teri, visited store after store, week after week, but came up empty.

It makes you wonder how the Wii has continued to be the top-selling console, selling 432,000 units in February, according to the most recent figures from the industry-tracking NPD Group. Where are people buying all those Wiis?

While the "where" might not be clear, we certainly know who many of those buyers are: prospectors.

Just look on eBay, where hundreds of unopened Wii consoles are listed for sale to the highest bidder. The sellers are trying to capitalize on the wild popularity of the Wii, which has huge appeal to casual gamers because of its gimmicky motion-control game play and relatively low $249 price.

Of course, that low price doesn't mean much in an auction. On eBay, a Wii system generally sells for at least $300 -- often plus exorbitant "shipping" charges of $30 to $40 (aka "extra profit"). And people are buying them.

Worse, many sellers make the system available only as a high-priced bundle, forcing people to buy unneeded or unwanted games and accessories -- many of them inventory-clearing stinkers. Even major retailers do this.

For example, a recent check showed that the only way to get an in-stock Wii system on Wal-Mart's website was to order at least three additional controllers (one of your choosing) and seven extra games (five of your choosing) for at least $703 shipped. That's a big initial purchase for a casual gamer.

But at least Wal-Mart stocks the Wii online. Target and Best Buy, which sell the system by itself, don't do so simply because the inventory is too unpredictable.

"No home console has ever sold so fast for so long," Nintendo of America said in a vast understatement when I asked for comment. "We planned for big numbers -- but not necessarily historic ones. We're doing everything we can."

Nintendo says it's producing 1.8 million Wiis a month, but that's worldwide.

"We're buying every unit of Wii that's available to us and working with Nintendo to secure additional inventory to meet demand," a Target spokesman said.

A Best Buy spokeswoman said the company couldn't discuss its inventory management.

Relief might be in sight by May 19. That's when Nintendo plans to release "Wii Fit," a highly anticipated exercise game for the Wii that is expected to have an unprecedented promotional campaign.

Wedbush Morgan Securities video-game analyst Michael Pachter told the media in March that he expects Nintendo to make more Wii consoles available by May to support the release of "Wii Fit." More important, he said he expects the company to shift supplies to mass merchandisers such as Target and Best Buy, whose shoppers are the primary casual-gamer target of "Wii Fit."

In the meantime, if you're looking for a Wii at its regular price, here are some tips based on my experiences and from talking to representatives at Best Buy and Target:

• Keep in touch with your local stores.

• Check stores in person, not by phone. Target and Best Buy, for example, will not hold Wiis for customers.

• Look in stores that are off the beaten path, such as at that highway exit you never take on the way to the cabin.

• Keep an eye on Sunday circulars touting that the Wii is in stock. For example, Target said that inventory tends to arrive in large quantities and that the retailer promotes the Wii in its sales fliers when that happens.

• Line up early on the first day of those sales.

It's all part of the game in finding a Wii.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542