Apple's holiday not looking great, could be worse

Preliminary estimates of Apple's performance amid one of the worst economic periods in years indicate no one has a magic bullet for recession, but some fare better than others.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read
Fewer people are expected to buy iPhones and iPods this quarter, but Mac shipments may hold down the fort for Apple. CNET

Even Apple may not be immune if consumers continue to sit on their wallets this holiday season.

Piper Jaffray, usually able to find the bright side of any Apple news, predicted Monday that iPhone and iPod sales are set to decline in the coming weeks amid what is expected to be the worst holiday season for the PC and consumer electronics industries in quite some time. Mac sales seem healthier thanks to Apple's latest crop of notebooks, but aren't growing as fast as they were last year.

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Piper based its outlook on surveys it performed inside Apple retail stores around the U.S. during a 25-hour period in November, counting the number of Macs and iPhones sold inside each store. It supplemented those expectations with data from market watcher NPD for sales of both the Mac and iPod for the month of October.

With $24 billion in the bank, no debt, and products that still appear popular with the public, Apple is in excellent shape to ride out what is expected to be a rough couple of quarters for companies that depend on consumer spending. The company's several-year run of double-digit percentage increases in revenue and profit may be coming to an end, however, as most such runs eventually do.

Let's take a look at the numbers:

Piper's data suggests that Apple will sell 6.4 million iPhones during the September to December quarter--Apple's first fiscal quarter--compared with the last quarter, when the company blew away expectations by selling 6.9 million units. The handset market in general tends to enjoy a 15 percent sequential boost in the holiday quarter compared with the June-September quarter, though this won't go down as a typical holiday season.

Apple retail stores were each selling on average 98 iPhones a day in July, when the iPhone 3G was released. In November they were only selling around 28 per store, which looks like a 71 percent decline and helps explain reports that Apple was cutting iPhone production heading into the current quarter.

However, those numbers don't tell the whole story, according to Piper. There was obviously pent-up demand for the iPhone 3G following a quarter in which Apple was sold out of iPhones for almost six weeks. And Piper also notes that Apple's retail stores are not the only place to find iPhones this quarter. AT&T obviously sells a few, and Apple added Best Buy as a distributor during the quarter.

When you factor in the increased number of countries selling the iPhone this quarter as well, Piper only expects a decline of 8 percent. Not that that's good news for Apple, of course, given how important the iPhone has become to its finances.

Apple can take comfort in the fact that the Mac numbers don't appear to be cratering, according to Piper's numbers. Piper is predicting that 2.6 million Macs will be sold during the quarter, which would be flat compared with last quarter's totals.

Last year in a healthier economy, Mac shipments increased by 7 percent in the first fiscal quarter compared with the fourth, so this year's totals are a bit off but still growing at a solid pace year-over-year. If Apple sells 2.6 million Macs during the holiday quarter, that would be a 13 percent improvement over the 2.3 million Macs shipped during the year-ago period.

On the last Apple earnings call, COO Tim Cook said he thought Mac sales were a little weaker than expected during the July to September quarter because potential buyers delayed their purchases of new notebooks, knowing that new models were around the corner. NPD's data seems to suggest that theory was on track following the launch of the redesigned MacBooks, recording a 28 percent jump in Mac sales in October compared with October 2007.

Still, Piper expects Mac demand to slow down in November and December. No new models are expected between now and Macworld in January, and the rush of buyers who upgraded in October are likely done buying Macs for a while.

Apple's best-selling product looks set to take a hit during the quarter, which is traditionally a blowout quarter for the iPod division. Shipments are expected to decline about 15 percent compared with last year's holiday quarter, coming in between 18.5 million units and 19 million units this time around.

There's no way to know at this point whether that is a reaction to Apple's latest crop of iPods unveiled in September or another symptom of an economic slowdown. A key number to watch will be the revenue growth or decline associated with the iPod group: Apple has been heavily advertising the iPod Touch as the "funnest ever" (and currently most expensive) iPod, and if revenue growth comes in slightly down or even flat against a 15 percent decline in unit shipments, the upselling strategy is probably working.

Competitive outlook
Apple's competitors aren't expected to fare much better during the quarter. Intel may not be a bellwether for tech anymore, but it is most certainly a bellwether for PC demand, and the $1 billion shortfall between Intel's previously expected fourth-quarter revenue and what it now expects indicates that the HPs and Dells of the world aren't expecting a stellar quarter.

On the handset side, Research In Motion could capitalize if iPhone shipments do decline, with the Storm and Bold making their way onto the stage. But it's unlikely that RIM will have a standout quarter itself, given the epic slowdown in business tech spending that usually accompanies one of these recession things.

And seven years on, there still doesn't seem to be a major competitor to the iPod. Apple is pushing the iPod into new territory as well, taking on portable gaming systems from the likes of Nintendo and Sony.

Apple's ability to post consistently strong growth figures quarter after quarter looks like it's coming to an end. If it's any consolation to fanboys and investors, however, at least it wasn't the company's fault.