That’s 228,978 iPods a day, thank you

So the iPod holiday sales numbers came out yesterday, and they were above even the “wildly speculative” estimates – Apple says that it shipped* 21,066,000 iPods during the last three months of 2006. Back in November, I mentioned that throughout fiscal year 2006, Apple had sold an average of 106,849 iPods a day, every day, for a total of 39 million all year.

The latest number suggests that Apple was shipping 228,978 new iPods every day for the past quarter – more than twice its fiscal year 2006 average, and the sort of rate of sales that puts Microsoft’s meager “1 million by June 2007” targets in perspective. Apple can sell a million iPods in under 7 days. Microsoft wants around 7 months.

If there’s any potential dark lining to this cloud, it’s that asterisk above: depending on how skeptical you are, Apple’s number might be inflated a little, or even a lot. Its official press release uses the word “shipped” to describe iPod volumes, while Apple’s executives on a follow-up conference call used the word “sold” alongside the same 21 million number; our working assumption is that the carefully-worded press release is correct here. The difference between shipments and sales is not an insignificant one: in the video game industry, as just one example, companies routinely “ship” (read: dump) tons of new game consoles “into the channel” right before the close of a quarter, stocking stores with piles of machines that will remain unsold (read: not in actual consumers’ hands being opened and used) for a month or more. Companies then use inflated “shipment” numbers to make it seem like they’ve had great quarters when they really haven’t.

During the conference call, Apple suggested that it had increased the number of iPods in the channel – i.e. waiting to be sold – by 200,000 during the quarter, which averages out to 5 more unsold iPods per store at each of the 40,000 locations now selling iPods. Put in perspective against shipments of over 21 million units, 200,000 unsold iPods is almost nothing – around a day’s sales during good times, two days’ sales during normal times. But that’s added on top of whatever the prior number of unsold iPods was – let’s guesstimate that it’s around a million. That would put actual sales at closer to 20 million for the 92 days in the quarter, which is still over 217,000 iPods every day. But then, we go into a Wal-mart and see this, where there certainly weren’t even 20 iPods waiting around to be sold. It’s anecdotal evidence, sure, but wow, iPods seem to still be fire hot, despite all sorts of predictions of a cooling off period.

Numbers like these are the reason we (and most rational readers) find the “iPod killer” stories to be more funny than plausible these days. The only company capable of killing an iPod is Apple. And most of the time, that turns out to be great news for iPod fans – and sales – rather than a disappointment.

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