Monday, January 19, 2009

Is that all?

I was underwhelmed by the (long rumored) Dec. 26 announcement about iPhone sales at Walmart.† After inspecting the iPhone sales activities at two different Walmarts in San José, two weeks apart, I am now under-underwhelmed.

At both stores, there were signs over the theft detectors at the door — two weeks ago they were more prominent, but today they shared billing with the promo for Open Season 2 (new on DVD!)

While the iPhones were nowhere in site, if you ask one of the “greeters” at the door, they’ll direct you to the opposite side of the store, where electronics are. The Walmart sales experience was every bit as downmarket as I feared.

Both stores sold phones (with contracts) from 3 of the big 4 carriers. The first one had all but Sprint and eight (8!) prepaid carriers, either MVNOs like Virgin or the prepaid arms of the big four. Today’s display had all but Verizon, and six prepaid carriers. Among the T-Mobile phones on display today were the G1 and the a Sidekick, each with the keyboard half of the phone locked down and the screen half stolen by some miscreant.

At both Walmarts, there was a dedicated iPhone display, maybe 3' wide and 18" high; today’s faced away from the entry, while the earlier one faced towards the entry. The display had a stand for a phone, but two weeks ago the phone was missing. Today there was a live iPhone, with real applications, but without any 3G signal (perhaps because it was deep into the large store).

Both stores also had point-of-sale promotions for competing phones. Today it was for the Blackberry Pearl Flip sold by T-Mobile. Two weeks ago, it was for a Verizon phone that claimed to be the “hottest” touchscreen phone (not even a Storm, but something generic Korean phone).

I didn’t see anyone looking at the iPhone display at either store. However, today I did hear this exchange between two electronics clerks:

Associate #1: “I sold two iPhones the other day.”
Associate #2: “I sold one.”
To make crude guesstimate, if every Walmart electronics department in the country sold one phone a day, 52 weeks a year, that would be about 910,000 phones a year, or about 10% of Apple’s projected global sales for 2009. So no matter how lame the display, if it increases sales by 10%, it was certainly worth it.

Of course, this is only guesstimate. In the two years since it was announced, iPhone demand has highly cyclical, with most phones sold in the quarter after its release. There is also the question of cannibalization — how many of these iPhones would have been sold through another channel? So my guess is that a net gain of 910,000 is most likely on the high side.

† Apparently the company is named “Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.” but the retail stores are named “Walmart.”

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