iPhone China Orders Off To Slow Start

Sep.18.13 | About: Apple Inc. (AAPL)

Everyone is watching closely to see how Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) two new iPhones will perform in their upcoming first weekend on sale, and I have to say the early numbers coming from China look rather unimpressive. I should give a major caveat by saying the figures I’m about to cite are very partial, and the extrapolations I’ll make are mostly based on my own guess work. But based on the cool reception that the two new iPhones have received in China so far, I would say the two new models would be lucky to sell as well as their predecessor, the iPhone 5, which itself wasn’t too impressive due to its late launch in China.

As someone who lives in Shanghai, one of China’s wealthiest markets, I can say with relative certainty that very few people are too excited about the upcoming phone. None of my friends have said they plan to buy either of the new models, the 5S and 5C, which will cost twice as much or more than many of the low-cost models that have flooded the market over the last year. What’s more, many of the cheaper models from companies like Huawei and Xiaomi are rapidly gaining local acceptance and are far more affordable alternatives, and have largely shed their awkward “Made in China” stigma that caused many consumers to initially avoid them.

All that said, let’s look at the two data points that I’ve seen, starting with one from China Unicom (NYSE:CHU), China’s second-largest telco, which says it has already logged reservations for more than 100,000 iPhones through Monday (English article). Another report cites a Citigroup analyst estimating sales on the first weekend will reach 7.75 million (Chinese article). But that figure includes not only China, but also some orders from Japan and Hong Kong. The phones will officially go on sale this Friday.

Let’s start with the Unicom figure, which to me looks rather unimpressive. The number represents about four or five days of orders since Apple first announced the phones last week, meaning perhaps the figure could double to 200,000 by actual launch time. Unicom rival China Telecom (NYSE:CHA) is also offering the iPhone, and could potentially be a bit more aggressive, perhaps logging as many as 250,000 orders. So that would put iPhone reservations at up to 500,000 before the launch. Then perhaps we could see that number double on the first weekend as more people buy the phones when they become available.

That means we could see perhaps up to 1 million in sales in new iPhone sales on the first weekend based on those extrapolations. The Citigroup prediction seems to be a bit more optimistic, as presumably up to half of the 7.75 million in first weekend sales could come from China, or nearly 4 million. By comparison, Apple logged 2 million in first-weekend sales for the iPhone 5, which was first offered in China last December, or about three months after its global launch. (previous post)

Based on all of that, it looks like the newest iPhones should probably sell around 2 million units in China on their launch weekend, or roughly equivalent to the iPhone 5′s performance last year. While some might say Apple should be happy just to maintain its numbers from the last launch, I should also point out that this time Chinese consumers are getting their phones at the same time as consumers around the world, meaning there’s still some buzz in the market.

Of course we’ll have to see some actual numbers before reaching any final verdict. But at the end of the day, anything less than 2 million in first-weekend China sales would mark a relative disappointment for Apple. That kind of disappointment seems likely, which is certainly in line with the steady stream of worldwide disappointments expressed by consumers and investors towards the company in this latest lackluster iPhone launch.

Bottom line: Apple’s iPhone sales in China are likely to hit 2 million or less in their first weekend, a relative weak showing due to a lack of buzz and stiff competition.