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Lines Form for Apple's iPhone 6, Though Initial Sales May Fall Short of iPhone 5s

Analysts project opening weekend sales short of those from a year ago, but note Apple's supply constraints.

Evert Christensen

Predictably long lines formed outside Apple stores Friday, as consumers waited hours (or days) for the opportunity to be among the first to lay their hands on the new iPhone 6 and super-sized 6 Plus.

But despite these obvious signs of enthusiasm, first-weekend sales may actually fall short of its predecessors’, the iPhone 5s and 5c. And it will likely have more to do with a shortage of supply than demand for the new phones.

Technology analysts project opening weekend sales of 6.5 million to 8 million units — compared with 9 million a year ago.

On its face, that looks like a disappointment, but some Wall Street analysts note that’s not the full picture. After all, Apple reported a record number of preorders for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, with more than four million in the first 24 hours.

PiperJaffray senior researcher Eugene Munster said the iPhone 5s and 5c initial sales reflected devices shipped — including some 3.5 million of the less-expensive model, which didn’t exactly get snapped up by consumers.

A better way to evaluate the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launch, he argues, is a comparison of initial weekend sales of the flagship iPhone 5s — projected at 5.5 million units. By that measure, PiperJaffray’s forecast of 6.5 million iPhone 6 and 6 Plus sales would represent an opening weekend bump of 18 percent.

Another factor weighing on the first weekend’s sales numbers is the absence of China in the group of countries getting the new phones at launch.

Bernstein Research senior researcher Toni Sacconaghi notes that Apple shipped more than two million smartphones into China for the December 2012 introduction of the iPhone 5 — a sizable number that highlights the impact of that giant market on phone sales.

Apple appears to be wrestling with supply constraints, with reported shipping times for people placing preorders stretching into October.

“Although we see the potential for first weekend sales to disappoint versus expectations … it is important for investors to keep in mind that ‘first weekend sales’ are principally a function of available supply rather than iPhone demand,” Sacconaghi wrote. “Accordingly, we would view any ‘disappointment’ as a potential red herring, given the ostensible greater-than-normal supply constraints Apple appears to be experiencing.”

Apple might benefit from a slower ramp of this generation of smartphones, helping to smooth out the traditional March quarter slump.

For those of you who still care about The Line, nearly 2,000 people stood outside Apple’s flagship 5th Avenue store in New York — an increase of 33 percent from the introduction of the iPhone 5s and 5c a year ago, according to PiperJaffray’s estimates. The same was true in the Midwest, where the queue outside the Mall of America store was 57 percent longer than a year ago.

In New York City, the line began forming absurdly early — around Labor Day, even before the newest Apple products were announced. Of course, some of the earliest arrivals were being paid by companies eager to capitalize on the publicity.

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