Elizabeth McKnight entered the Apple Store at Towson Town Center recently hoping to buy the one Christmas gift her teenage daughter had been asking for since September, but convinced she would have to settle for a compromise.
She had, after all, already searched the Web in vain and listened to the pessimistic predictions of a friend as they drove to the mall.
"My friend who brought me here said, 'You're not going to get the color you want. You can try but you won't get it,'" McKnight said as she stood in the checkout line with a big, this-makes-my-day smile and the reason for that glee - an iPod mini, in her daughter's wish-list color of green.
McKnight's experience is getting rarer, at least in some parts of the country, as the tiny MP3 player shapes up as one of the season's hottest gifts. From New York to San Francisco, there are reports of shoppers entering Apple and other retail stores seeking the business-card sized, $250 gadget and coming away with nothing but sour grapes when they learn they're sold out. Online shoppers similarly are being stymied: Yesterday, for example, iPod minis were "unavailable" on Target's Web site and "out of stock" on J&R; Electronics' site.
The iPod mini, introduced in January, initially raised skepticism among some industry analysts. They questioned why consumers wouldn't just pay the extra $50 for a full-fledged iPod and its greater storage capacity - 4,000 songs to the mini's 1,000.
But the palm-sized mini, which comes in five metallic colors, is proving to be one of those alluringly designed products that - like the Macintosh computers before it - consumers want in greater quantities than Apple produces.
Apple doesn't release exact sales figures, but one analyst, Steve Baker of the market-tracking group NPD, estimated that 29 percent of all iPods sold over the first 10 months of the year were minis.
What is unusual about the mini's popularity, he said, is the high demand "this far along after they've had the product in the marketplace.
"Without question," he said, "the iPod mini dominates the five-gigabyte market share, with about 80 to 90 percent of the market, as does the iPods in the bigger-drive market."
On amazon.com, the iPod mini in silver has rated No. 1 in three electronics gift-giving categories: the gifts customers love, wish for and give.
Moreover, as of yesterday afternoon, iPod minis in silver and pink were ranked first and second, respectively, among Amazon.com's best selling electronics list, which is updated hourly.
Amazon was also running short on minis - the blue and green ones were sold out, although a new shipment was expected.
Other Web sites similarly reported high traffic in all things iPod.
"What you're seeing is as the holiday season gets further along, the iPod is a hot product and people are going to stores and they can't find them," said Hani Durzy, an eBay spokesman. "That's when they turn to eBay."
Apple would not comment on any shortages beyond this prepared statement: "The iPod is one of the hottest gifts this holiday season and the number one selling portable digital player. To try to meet this high demand we're making and shipping iPods as fast as we can. So, if one store has run out, you may find iPods in another authorized iPod reseller."
The company has shipped 5.7 million iPods since 2001, when it was first introduced, but Apple would not say how many of those were minis.
As time runs out before Christmas and people would rather have their gifts in hand rather than somewhere in transit, some retailers are similarly shifting their iPod inventories.
Officials at Best Buy say their shelves should be well-stocked with iPods because they've moved much of their online inventory to their stores.
"Chances are if you go into one of our stores, you're going to find the iPod you want and the color you want," spokesman Brian Lucas said.
He certainly understands their appeal.
"I have an iPod mini myself, and it's one of those great combinations of style and substance," said Lucas. "The more you use them, the more you feel, 'What did I do before I had them?'"
That was clearly the case last week at Towson Town Center, where the mini was in high demand, a demand that was largely fulfilled with existing stock.
"Certainly [the mini] was the first one to hit the scene and Apple has done a great job of getting it out there," said Bruce Belcher of Mount Washington.
He bought a mini for his girlfriend, although she would not be a newcomer to the cult of the tiny - perhaps too tiny - player.
"She owned one before," he said, "and lost it."