iPhone 5S, 5C hunters hit up NYC, but 64GB gold is elusive

Hundreds of people waited in line at Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan, but not even the first handful of people in line -- who waited days -- could get the 64GB gold version of the iPhone 5S.

An Apple employee tells Brian Ceballo, the first person in line for the iPhone at Apple's Fifth Avenue store in NYC, that the store has no 64GB iPhone 5S phones in gold. Ceballo waited 15 days to buy that particular device. Luckily Apple employees "found one in the back," he tells CNET. Shara Tibken/CNET
NEW YORK -- Long lines awaited the launch of the iPhone 5S in New York City, but many customers soon found out the stores had shortages of the gold version.

The first people in line at Apple's flagship store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue waited 15 days for the 64GB gold iPhone 5S only to find out the store had a very limited supply of that device available.

Brian Ceballo, a 19-year-old who was the first person in line, told CNET before the store opened at 8 a.m. ET that Apple initially told him they didn't have the 64GB version in gold at all but that they'd try to find it. It turned out they found him the phone he wanted. "They had one in back," Ceballo said. But the people in line behind him weren't as lucky.

Ilya Olkhovskiy, a 22-year-old Russian currently in college in the US, had planned to buy two 64GB iPhone 5S phones in gold to sell to a couple of people in his hometown in Russia for $2,000 apiece. He was about 30th in line after waiting for 20 hours, but he had to go with "space gray" instead.

"I have a flight back to Russia today," he said. "I will buy a new phone for myself in two months. Then there will be no line so I can choose any phone I want. Today is just business."

An Apple spokeswoman at the store said she didn't have information about store inventory.

Many other people in the line expressed frustration with the lack of the gold iPhone. The 5S launch marks the first time Apple has offered its flagship phone in that color, and customers have not been able to preorder the device. To get the iPhone 5S on launch day, they have to stand in line. However, the gold color was rumored to be in short supply ahead of the launch, something confirmed by the lack of the device here at one of Apple's biggest stores in the country.

As usual, the first people in line at the Apple store on Fifth Avenue were sponsored by iPhone trade-in sites, app makers, and other companies. Sell Your Mac decided to sponsor Ceballo, the first person in line, after the company's own people arrived at the store and discovered they were too late to be first. Ceballo has stood in line for every iPhone.

Greg Parker, meanwhile, a 49-year-old retired highway maintenance worker, got in line Monday. BuyBack World is sponsoring Parker and paying for his iPhone -- the 64GB silver 5S -- in exchange for wearing a shirt with its company name and talking about the organization.

"I've done previous iPhone launches, and we reached out to each other," he said. Parker declined to say whether he will be trading in his iPhone 4S.

Friday's launch marks the first time that Apple has offered more than one new iPhone and the first time it has offered a wide variety of colors. It's also the first time since the introduction of the iPhone 3GS in 2009 that Apple hasn't touted the number of devices it presold in the first 24 hours. This year, only the lower-cost iPhone 5C was available for presale, rather than also offering the high-end flagship version.

Brian Ceballo, the first person in line, waited 15 days for the 64 GB iPhone 5S in gold only to be disappointed. Sarah Tew/CNET
Many outlets have reported that iPhone 5S supplies are constrained , and carriers are also reportedly facing supply issues.

Even online, initial supplies of all three configurations of the gold iPhone 5S sold out within a half-hour . Apple is now promising a ship date in October, whereas with the silver and space gray iPhone 5S models, ship dates slipped to seven to 10 days only after hours on sale.

Apple's flagship store in Manhattan store opened at 8 a.m. ET. About 600 people crowded onto the plaza in front of the store, and countless others circled the block. Unlike previous years, Apple limited access to the people at the front of the line. Reporters were asked to leave the line at the plaza area when workers started handing out cards specifying which model the buyers would get. It was at that same time that many people waiting realized they would not be getting the 64GB gold model they wanted.

"I...considered getting gold because it's the flashiest," said Alex Levy, a 27-year-old law student. "But they're out of it, and the flashiness will wear off and you're stuck with a gold phone."

When he and Steven Tartick, a 27-year-old in advertising, arrived at 6:15 a.m. ET, the line already stretched down the block. By 8:45 a.m. ET, the two had finally reached the plaza but still had hundreds of people in front of them.

However, Tartick, who worked at Apple during the iPhone 3G launch and has bought a new iPhone every time around, said the line moved faster than previous years.

Hundreds of people await the iPhone 5S and 5C launch at Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan. Sarah Tew/CNET
"This line is nothing compared to that [3G] launch," he said.

Levy and Tartick made it through the line by 10:45 a.m. ET, with Tartick being told by Apple that he bought the last silver Verizon iPhone 5S in the store. He chose the 64GB version.

The iPhone 5S includes updated components, comes in three colors, and includes a fingerprint sensor to unlock the device and make purchases. It will retail for $199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB, or $399 for 64GB, all with a two-year contract. The iPhone 5C, which has a plastic case, starts at $99 for the 16GB version or $199 for 32GB with a two-year contact.

Adding multiple colors to a one-time more-monochromatic product line can cause inventory problems for retailers, at least until they get a handle on what customers prefer. The original iMac debuted in 1998 in only one color, "Bondi blue," but the next year Apple freshened its color palate with what it called strawberry, blueberry, tangerine, grape, and lime.

Some retailers grew angry, though, because Apple required the stores to buy the models in equal quantities even if customers had different opinions. That can leave retailers stuck with models that don't sell

There can be other ripple effects from cosmetic changes, too. When indigo, ruby, snow, and sage iMacs arrived in 2000, accessory makers were stuck with color-uncoordinated supplies.

Updates, 7:10 a.m. PT and 11:10 a.m. PT: Adds additional details.

Corrections, 8:05 a.m. PT: References to white and black 5S models have been changed to silver and space gray. And at 11:10 a.m. PT: The story incorrectly stated the age of line waiter Steven Tartick. He is 28. This story was also updated to reflect that Tartick believed the line for the launch of the iPhone 3G, not the iPhone 3GS, was longer than the line on Friday for the iPhone 5S.

 

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