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Piper: iMac refresh boosts Mac, iPhone sales off

An informal survey of Apple retail stores ahead of Apple's second-quarter earnings announcement has Mac shipments slightly better than expected, but iPhone shipments down.

If Piper Jaffray's survey of U.S. Apple store activity holds water, the company's second fiscal quarter might not have been as bad as some had feared.

Apple's new iMacs may have prevented its Mac division from a significant slide in its second quarter. Apple

Apple is getting set to report earnings for its second fiscal quarter next week, and the tech industry is watching closely to see if Apple has managed to diffuse the impact of an economy in recession for the second straight quarter. Few are expecting a blowout from Apple, but Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster is now more confident about Mac and iPhone sales for the quarter than he was in February.

Piper Jaffray watched 25 Apple retail stores around the U.S. last week, and estimated that Apple was selling an average of 22 iPhones a day and 28 Macs a day per store. Based on that data, it appears that Apple will have sold 3.7 million iPhones during the quarter and 2.2 million Macs.

On the iPhone front, 3.7 million units would be significantly less than the 4.4 million units Piper Jaffray had been expecting for the March quarter, but Munster thinks that international sales not counted in this survey could help boost the total, and did not change his estimate of 4.4 million units. The average financial analyst is expecting Apple to have sold just 3.3 million iPhones.

To this point, predicting iPhone sales has been a bit difficult without a lot of history to draw upon. But it seems that Apple watchers are settling into a seasonal pattern in which more is expected from Apple in the second half of the calendar year following the usual summer launch time frame and holiday shopping season.

On the Mac front, it still appears that Mac sales will decline year-over-year for the first time in quite awhile. Earlier this year Piper thought Q2 Mac sales could possibly dip to just 2 million units for the quarter, but based on its store checks now feels that the iMac refresh earlier this month was enough to tighten that estimate to 2.2 million units, compared to 2.3 million units sold in last year's second fiscal quarter.

So what does this mean for Apple? If Piper's estimates are correct, the company's growth is clearly not immune to broader economic trends, but nor does it seem that Apple has been hit as hard as some of its rivals. Still, Piper's estimates do not include online sales of Macs, so it's hard to know how precise they might be.

Next week will tell the real story. Apple told investors last quarter that it expects revenue of about $7.8 billion and earnings per share of about 95 cents, numbers that lots of other companies would love to post in the middle of the worst recession in a generation. That guidance would represent slight revenue growth and slight profit decline, and as just about anyone who follows Apple's financial performance knows, the company routinely lowballs its guidance only to dramatically exceed those figures 90 days later.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini told investors Tuesday that he thought the PC market had reached a bottom and the second half of the year is shaping up well, so Apple's second fiscal quarter could well be a low-water mark that isn't all that low.