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Monday, April 04, 2005, 08:15 am PT (11:15 am ET)

Analyst: Mac mini coming to Best Buy retail stores (Updated)

Apple Computer, Inc. will soon begin selling its low-cost Mac mini computers through the nation's largest consumer electronics chain, Merrill Lynch said on Monday.

In a research note released to clients, analyst Steve Milunovich said, "It appears that Best Buy is near ready to sell the Mac Mini. [...] Last week one Best Buy showed us Mac mini accessories; Mac minis are coming later."

The analyst speculates that Apple may have delayed the Best Buy roll-out until Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger could be pre-loaded on each of the minis that will be sold through the retailer.

"Buyers would not be pleased if they had to plunk down an extra $129 after their $499 Mac mini purchase," Milunovich said. He added that Tiger is close to shipping and will likely arrive by the end of April and in time to benefit Apple's third quarter earnings.

Merrill Lynch believes the presence of Mac mini at Best Buy, along with the iPod, will help provide evidence of the halo effect — positive experiences with their iPods turning into new Mac sales. "Although we see plenty of anecdotal evidence of Mac sales benefiting from iPod success, the numbers will tell the tale," said Milunovich, who expects to see a consistent 15-20% year-over-year Mac revenue growth.

In other analysis, Merrill Lynch said that recent checks show traffic at Apple's retail stores has slowed, slightly. "For the first time we can recall since the iPod craze kicked off, store employees outnumbered customers and there was less than an hour wait for the genius bar at some of the stores we visited," Milunovich wrote. He said retailers typically see slower sales following Easter. Apple has also reportedly reduced orders for iPods to Inventec, one of its iPod manufacturers.

Merrill Lynch reiterated its Buy rating on Apple with a price objective of $51 per share, estimating the company will earn 22 cents a share for the recently ended fiscal quarter. But the firm waved caution, saying Apple may need to post a figure north of 25 cents to satisfy investors.

"Beyond making near-term estimates, Apple must show it can build a sustainable consumer franchise," Milunovich said. "All the speculation about potential products [...] sets a high bar, but owning Apple is like having a call option on Steve Jobs' inventiveness."

Rumors that Apple would soon begin selling the Mac mini at Best Buy first appeared on the Web site MacRumors.com.

Best Buy did not return repeated inquiries for comment last week, though independent reports confirm the retailer's Canadian stores have carried the Mac mini for some time.

Update: Several tipsters are pointing out that Mac minis began showing up at Best Buy locations this weekend. Specifically, tipsters noted that Best Buy locations in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Tennessee are currently stocking the computers.