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Blueberry iMacs tough to find

The original Bondi Blue iMac is still outselling its newer counterparts thanks to price cuts, but some models are backordered.

Blueberry is out of season.

Apple Computer has rotated its crop of older "Bondi Blue" iMacs in favor of the fruit-flavored systems now on store shelves, but the original model is still outselling its newer counterparts thanks to price cuts.

And a pecking order has already been established among the new models, an imbalance in availability that could cause tension for dealers and customers. Blueberry is tough to find, but there are plenty of strawberries around. Tangerine, meanwhile, is big in Denver, home of the NFL champion Broncos and their legion of orange-clad fans.

The colorful iMacs are an extension of Apple's marketing and design philosophy, which is: Stand out from the crowd. It's a strategy that tries to convince buyers to go with Apple over Windows-based machines, even if they're more expensive.

For instance, market surveys have shown many first-time buyers equate computer performance solely with chip speed. Many companies are offering less expensive systems than the iMac which have 333 and 350-MHz processors, compared to the iMac's 266-MHz chip. Apple is trying to change the focus from specs to the design and identity of the machine.

Color, said interim CEO Steve Jobs at an industry event earlier this year, "is far more important than the mumbo-jumbo associated with buying a computer. People don't care about that stuff," he said. "What they care about is, 'I want to express myself.'"

So far, the company appears to be succeeding. The iMac has been at or near the top of the sales chart since its introduction, and Apple has claimed that about 30 percent of iMac buyers are first time computer buyers.

Research from PC Data shows that the previous-generation iMac was the fourth-highest selling computer in retail and mail order/online operations during the month of January. Hewlett-Packard enjoyed the No. 1 and No. 3 most-popular systems, while Compaq took second place.

Among the iMacs, the old-style version (with a 233-MHz PowerPC processor) outsold all five new models (with a 266-MHz chip) by three to one, said Stephen Baker, principal hardware analyst for PC Data. The results were due to a combination of factors, including a sub-$1,000 price point on the older system, and limited availability of the new models.

In fact, none of the five colors--blueberry, grape, lime, strawberry, or tangerine--broke into the top ten list, and even when sales were measured in the aggregate, the new iMac wasn't among the top 15 best selling systems, Baker said.

Where's my grape?
Of the new systems, blueberry is the most popular color, and also the hardest to come by, with grape a close second. Lime, a fruit often associated with margaritas and Corona beer, was the third most-popular system, followed by strawberry and tangerine, according to PC Data's numbers.

Apple's customers are finding the more popular fruit colors are not yet in season, based on reader reports and calls made by CNET News.com to various resellers.

CompUSA Online said the blueberry model wouldn't be available to them until April, although individual stores may have them. MacMall and Computer Discount Warehouse have blueberry and grape-colored systems on backorder, while MacWarehouse said it expects shipments of the blueberry systems within 30 days.

"There are lots of regional differences in iMac availability, but not anything that's causing Apple to lose lots of sleep," said Lou Mazzuchelli, financial analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison. "Apple only started making them on January 5, so they are still playing catch up," he said.

"The reality is, all colors are moving OK. Tangerine is doing well in Denver and Tennessee," Mazzuchelli noted earnestly, primarily because those locales feature sports teams with orange in their jerseys. Tennessee's Volunteers won football's national college championship in early January, while the Broncos captured the Super Bowl at the end of the month.

"I haven't checked Syracuse [whose college team is named the Orangemen], but I bet [the tangerine systems] are doing well there too," Mazzuchelli said.

In the long run, however, retailers may run out of patience with Apple if the company can't supply the most popular colors soon.

Also, retailers have to order each color in identical numbers from Apple to reduce problems with forecasting production levels, although they can order systems separately, at a higher price, from distributors like Ingram Micro. Being forced to stock all colors when buying from Apple could become a point of contention, especially if some colors continue to prove easier to sell than others.

"Not a fashion industry"
"No retailer is keen on stocking multiple systems based on color," said David Goldstein, president of Channel Marketing, a retail consultancy. "The computer industry isn't a fashion industry," he said, adding that retailers so far appear to be hewing to Apple's strategy.

Stylized PCs have been tried before, Goldstein noted. Acer tried selling systems in black, green, and gray, while Packard Bell once offered panels with non-standard colors, and a variety of manufacturers have offered systems in black.

"It's an interesting marketing gimmick," said Goldstein, pointing out that the original iMac sold extremely well. Ironically, one of its chief advantages was that it avoided the complexity of producing and stocking multiple systems.