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Thursday, February 10, 2011, 11:25 pm PT (02:25 am ET)

Verizon iPhone 4 launch healthy, not 'blowout'

First day retail store sales of the Verizon iPhone 4 were reported to be an indication of healthy but not "blowout" demand, with most stores still reporting inventory towards the end of the day.

According to a note from RBC analyst Mike Abramsky, checks with 40 different Verizon retail stores in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and other cities showed no signs of "stockouts," while the number of people waiting in line "appeared smaller than those for the AT&T iPhone 4 last year, but demand was steady though the day."

Abramsky added, "positively, some stores we spoke to indicated they may stock out by end of the day."

The note said it would be important "to monitor sell-through next few days (and weekend) to see if demand is spread over several days vs. concentrated to the first day" and to see whether Apple is "still on track for our 1M Verizon iPhone first week estimate."

In laughably short lines, the joke is on you

The reported lack of long lines for the Verizon iPhone 4 was blamed for a rapid but minor selloff in the company's stock, as bloggers like Dan Frommer of Silicon Alley Insider remarked that lines were "laughably short."

However, the number of people forced to wait long lines at retail stores was likely reduced by a successful round of pre-orders, which didn't occur in conjunction with the AT&T iPhone 4 launch last summer. When pre-orders failed along with an overwhelmed eligibility server, vast numbers of people interested in AT&T's iPhone 4 made retail store reservations instead, appearing at the special "first day event" which Apple actively converged its customers toward, creating a news story of demand success that was really a picture of operational failure.

The result was laughably long lines on the initial launch day. Lines also moved rather slowly because Apple forced each buyer to sit through a sales pitch for MobileMe and AppleCare while also providing hands-on assistance with setting up the phone. Had Apple's pre-order system worked correctly, and had the company executed a more efficient handling of the crowds that resulted, there would have been no need for long lines, just as there are no lines for Nokia phones despite the company selling, by far, the most phones worldwide.

At the same time, many customers simply walked into AT&T's nearly empty retail outlets and made iPhone 4 purchases without waiting at all, or showed up a day or two later to avoid the media circus revolving around Apple's own retail store launch. The presence of long lines has little correspondence with the overall demand expressed.

That makes looking at the length of lines in front of some retail outlets a fairly poor indicator of how many units are actually being sold, and a better indicator of how poorly the company is managing to supply whatever demand that does exist. Similarly, while the initial production shortages that dogged each new iPhone release dramatized the voracious demand for each new model, it would be even better for Apple to be able to build enough to meet demand.

Can Apple build enough?

A previous report indicated that Apple had produced an initial supply of 2 million CDMA iPhones, some proportion of which it allocated for Verizon's pre-orders.

Abramsky's report added, "note that Apple is delaying [online] Verizon iPhone shipments until Feb 18, possibly indicating stronger than expected pre-order demand."

If Apple allowed pre-orders to exceed the initial allocation, it would make sense that launch day orders would be delayed an additional week or two until the company can produce more and ship them to the US. Had the company simply shut down pre-orders early, it could have pushed more inventory into a small number of stores and generated another "long lines" story for the media instead.

It appears that iPhone launches increasingly don't require such publicity anymore, making more sense that Apple instead work to take as many pre-orders as it can, stock as many retail outlets as possible, and leave the waiting for online orders to ensure that every last phone it can produce will be sold as quickly and as efficiently as possible.