With the biggest shopping period of the U.S. holiday period finished, the video game companies like Nintendo and Microsoft are sending out their press releases touting their latest sales figures. Fortunately, we have a number of recent Black Friday announcements and sales figures to compare with, and I think we can use those to get a good idea of what the latest figures say not just about the older consoles but, notably, about the new Wii U from Nintendo.
First, the facts about Wii hardware sales in the U.S. on Black Friday and how they relate to November in general. If we exclude its launch year (2006) and last year (2011), the Wii's Black Friday sales ranged between 36 percent and 47 percent of its total for the month of November, according to data from the NPD Group, a retail tracking firm. In its launch year, the first week of sales were essentially the same as November sales, so the ratio was 100 percent.
Last year, however, that ratio changed dramatically, up to 58 percent of November's sales. That is, Wii sales became much more strongly concentrated around Black Friday sales events. As I would read that, consumers weren't insistent on getting a Wii immediately and were content to wait for retailers to offer a better deal.
The table below shows the historical data I have available to me about the Wii during this period of the year.
What's going to go in those blanks for November 2012 and the full holiday of 2012? I think I can give a partial answer to that.
This year I believe that ratio of Black Friday sales to full November sales will go even higher, with last week's results accounting for nearly two thirds of all Wii sales during the month. Given that Nintendo has announced a total of 300,000 Wii systems sold during the past week, I expect the full November figure to be right around 450,000 Wii units.
If I'm right, this will be the weakest November ever for the Wii, even including November 2006.
Going further, the table of data above shows that Wii sales during the shopping period around Black Friday used to account for 11 percent to 19 percent of combined November and December sales. Then last year that figure jumped to 26 percent, showing that 1 in 4 Wiis purchased last holiday were purchased around that one key week.
That should go up again this year, and if the Black Friday period accounts for, say, 30 percent of all Wii sales then the total for these last two months will even out to a cool million units. As the table above shows, that would be right on par with the 2006 Wii launch, and significantly below every other year since.
I have not been able to get as much data about Black Friday sales for the other two older consoles, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3. [Since this article was written, Microsoft announced Xbox 360 sales of 750,000 in the U.S. during Black Friday week. - Ed.] What I do have suggests that the Xbox 360's performance in 2007 and 2008 was very similar to the data for the Wii. In those years 40 percent and 47 percent of all Xbox 360 sales were made during the Black Friday sales period.
Even more interesting, in 2011 the figures available show that Black Friday sales for the Xbox 360 jumped to 57 percent of November sales, right in line with the 58% ratio the Wii showed in the same year.
I suspect Sony is likely seeing the same phenomenon, and it's not hard to come up with a reasonable sounding explanation. These are all old systems, with the Xbox 360 having launched over 7 years ago, and consumers are savvy enough to know this. There is no rush to get into stores and grab an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 right before Thanksgiving, when they can grab one at a discount during the Black Friday sales.
That is, the technology in these system does not excite consumers the way it did just two years ago, especially when there are newer, sleeker gadgets to buy.
What's next for Wii U
Of course, the Wii U just happens to be one of those new gadgets, and I want to now turn to the question of what this historical data might suggest for its launch and the remainder of the year.
The Wii is the most natural comparison, obviously. With announced sales of 400,000 during the holiday sales week and reports from around the web showing that the console is hard to find on shelves, it seems likely that we'll again see Black Friday sales at 100 percent of November sales.
Consumer enthusiasm should continue at its current level at least into February 2013, so it will be up to Nintendo to provide the hardware to retailers during December. If the Wii is any guide, Nintendo will manage another 500,000 units in December, putting the total for the year at just under 1 million.
This week Europe will finally get the Wii U and then the system will launch in Japan in early December. Each of those regions will probably get shipments around the same size as the U.S., as happened with the Wii.
By the time Nintendo announces its third quarter results in exactly two months, I expect them to announce that they've shipped right around 3 million units. That will put them well on their way to meeting their goal of global shipments of 5.5 million Wii U systems by the end of March 2013.
It's past March that really will be the test for Nintendo's new console venture. The last two summers in the U.S. video game industry have been truly brutal periods, when software sales slowed to a trickle and hardware gathered dust on retailer shelves. Yet Nintendo has said it will keep the big software releases flowing regularly, both from third parties and from their own studios. It will take lots of evangelizing, both to consumers and publishers, something that Nintendo didn't successfully accomplish last generation.