How Apple sold 9 million iPhones this weekend

Just a few of the nine million.
Just a few of the nine million.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
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Apple this morning said it sold nine million units of its new iPhones, the 5s and 5c, in the three days since they became available on Friday Sept. 20. That’s Apple’s best opening weekend yet, despite criticism that the iPhone 5s is no great leap and that the 5c is just a repackaged iPhone 5. When it launched the iPhone 5 last year, Apple sold five million units in its opening weekend; the iPhone 4S sold four million the year before. A back-of-the-envelope calculation using last quarter’s average sale price of $580 suggests over $5 billion in gross sales for Apple this weekend.

Many expected a surge in sales thanks to the iPhone 5c. That appears to have been the exact opposite of what happened. Mobile analytics firm Localytics says that the more expensive iPhone 5s sold nearly four times as much. Indeed, Tim Cook confirmed that the 5s is more popular: “The demand for the new iPhones has been incredible, and while we’ve sold out of our initial supply of iPhone 5s, stores continue to receive new iPhone shipments regularly,” he is quoted as saying in the press release.

So what accounts for the remarkable success of Apple’s latest offerings? Most obviously, this release marks the first time that China got the iPhone on the same day as other important markets. In December 2012, when the iPhone 5 went on sale in China nearly a month after elsewhere, it sold two million units in the first few days. Even assuming that number has remained the same, that’s a significant boost right there.

Also in Asia, Apple finally came to an arrangement with DoCoMo, Japan’s biggest mobile network operator. With more than 40% of Japanese subscribers, that’s another vast market for the new iPhones to tap into.

So much for why the numbers jumped so dramatically over the past two years. What about the impressive, and counter-intuitive success of the more expensive 5s? That is possibly the result of a basic human behavior: the existence of a cheaper (and in this case plastic) item makes the marginally more expensive one that much more attractive. In addition, subsidies in some parts of the world have been changed around to add to the impression.

To be sure, 9 million phones in three days is an impressive number whichever way you look at it. But it says less about the new range of iPhones than it does about the fact Apple phones continue to be desirable largely for being Apple phones. That is a position few companies ever achieve. But it is not something that can last forever.