Nike drops have nothing on GPUs. I waited in line with 170 people for a graphics card

I went to Best Buy this morning to buy a graphics card. It took hours, I was drenched in sweat by the time it was over, and I’m still not convinced I should have showed up. But I got a graphics card, and the 170 or so people around me did as well. After finally getting back home, I’m convinced that these GPU “drops” — like you see with sneakers, streetwear, and video games — are going to be around for a while.

Line on the side of Best Buy.
My view from about halfway through the line.

Walk of shame

The line, which I underestimated when I parked my car in the front lot, wrapped around the store. It covered a lengthy section of sidewalk, a side lot for Geek Squad cars, and the warehouse portion in the back. And this particular Best Buy is larger than the others in my area — it serves as a distribution hub.

Walking to my spot at the end of the line feels like a walk of shame. There are three or four tents set up toward the entrance, dozens of lawn chains, and bottles of water, granola bar wrappers, and fast food bags littering the sidewalk.

I settle into the back of the line unenthusiastically around 6:30 a.m. I’m convinced I’m too far back to actually take advantage of the RTX restock, but I figure some conversation with the people around me wouldn’t hurt. Immediately, talk of “crypto assholes” and scalpers fills the air. Everyone is quick to clarify that they aren’t scalpers or miners, and they wouldn’t be caught dead being either.

The guy in front of me is probably in his mid-40s. He says he originally planned to upgrade his PC from an aging Core i7-4970K and GTX 970 as a Christmas present to himself, but he hasn’t been able to track down a graphics card to complete the build. “I’ve waited 10 months, what’s a few more?” he says to me.

When 7:30 a.m. rolls around, the line immediately starts to tighten as people collapse their lawn chairs and move forward. It reeks of gasoline, apparently from a car that was leaking it. When a guy in front of me points it out to the driver, he responds: “Yeah, it’s gotten real bad.”

Suddenly, a Blue Shirt peeks around the corner: “We’re all out of 70s,” he yells. “Make sure to have the card you want ready when we come to you. If you don’t, we’ll move on.” I secure an RTX 3090 voucher. The group of five guys in front of me also get vouchers for cards, one of them an RTX 3090, and the rest RTX 3070s.

Best Buy RTX 3090 voucher.
Apparently, I received the 22nd RTX 3090 voucher.

Everyone leaves happy

In fact, everyone in line got a card. In the hour it took to make it to the front of the store, I saw probably a dozen more people join the line and also get vouchers. Based on the vouchers Best Buy employees were handing out, it looks like the store even had some cards left over. Someone who shows up late is going to have a good day.

I’ve covered the GPU shortage since it started, and the people around me at Best Buy were well aware of how hard it is to get a graphics card. However, none of them showed up to previous “drops.” Honestly, I hadn’t either. They talked about looking online, trying to refresh pages to track down a card, but none of them actually went to a store on restock day.

Graphics card restocks have become events, and after today, I’m convinced they’re not going anywhere. I expected to find crypto-miners, some scalpers, and many gamers who had desperately tried to find a graphics card and failed. But I didn’t. Instead, I found people who were deeply informed about the GPU shortage, but never made it out to one of the many restocks that have happened to pick a card.

Graphics card restocks have become events, and after today, I’m convinced they’re not going anywhere.

Nvidia doesn’t normally sell Founder’s Edition cards after launch. Now, the company has continued to push Founder’s Edition cards in an exclusive distribution deal with Best Buy, presenting big restocks as events that people will camp out for overnight. No one needed to camp out — all told, I could have gotten a card if I had showed up an hour after they started handing out vouchers. But people still did.

Based on a rough count, there were some 170 people in line — and if the leaked stock list was accurate, my Best Buy had about 190 cards available. That’s a lot of quick money for Nvidia and Best Buy, and the longer they can keep up events like this, the better for them. It’s about generating hype, which I’m convinced of after waiting in line for a few hours.

Line outside of Best Buy for RTX restock.

Creating demand

This isn’t new — just new for graphics cards. In the world of video games, a slew of “limited-run” companies produce physical games that would otherwise be digital-only. Nintendo did something similar with Mario 3D All Stars earlier this year. In the clothing world, streetwear and sneakers also demand hype, restricting plentiful supply to increase demand.

There were enough graphics cards for everyone to comfortably pick one up during the day (or the next week, for that matter). For all the people around me, this was their first time trying to get a graphics card in person, after likely getting fed up with the limited options online. Programs like Newegg Shuffle have served as a barrier, generating buzz for hot-ticket items to drive up sales.

And it’s happening in-store now, too. The GPU shortage is over. Although graphics card prices are still through the roof due to a variety of factors, the sustained reinforcement of a shortage has generated a new type of demand where people who would otherwise never stand in line for a graphics card are waiting, sweating for hours on a hot summer day.

At this point, it’s a matter of how long Nvidia, AMD, and retailers can keep it up. They’re betting on the people who are still waiting to upgrade, who have read the news and seen the discourse around the GPU shortage and thought: “What’s a few months more?” They’ll crack eventually, and today showed me that.

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