Apple’s new big-screen iPhones draw long lines as sales start

Tim Higgins (c) 2014, Bloomberg News.

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple’s stores attracted long lines of shoppers for the debut of the latest iPhones, indicating robust pent-up demand for bigger-screen smartphones.

The iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus became available starting in Australia, before rolling out in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, France, Germany, Puerto Rico, Canada and the United States. Consumers in New York and San Francisco had already formed queues to be first to buy the gadgets.

Pedro Regadillo began waiting outside Apple’s store on Fifth Avenue in New York about two weeks ago. The 59-year-old Air Force veteran, who has stood in line to buy iPhones three times before on the first day of sales, said he had his heart set on an iPhone 6 Plus, which has a 5.5-inch screen.

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“I love the size,” said Regadillo, who was near the front of a line that wound its way around the block and included tourists who had flown in from Brazil. “I’ve got a problem with my vision.”

Apple’s iPhone rollout is the most important event this year for the Cupertino, California-based company. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook is counting on the handsets to maintain Apple’s sales growth. The devices generate more than half of the company’s annual $171 billion in revenue and precedes a swath of other products, including new iPads and Apple Watch. The iPhones also sport larger screens — 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches, compared with 4 inches for previous models — helping Apple appeal to new consumers.

“The most important aspect of first weekend iPhone sales are the long lines and the ‘record breaking’ sales numbers that generate the free press for the company,” Walter Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG, wrote in a note to investors Thursday. “We expect the allure of another ‘record breaking’ press release will result in Apple announcing that it sold more than 10 million iPhones this weekend.”

The buzz over the smartphones has been high since Cook unveiled them at a Sept. 9 event. When the iPhones became available for pre-order a week ago, they racked up a record 4 million reservations in the first 24 hours and surpassed earlier releases. Reviewers have heaped praise on the gadgets and resellers have said users are trading in older phones to make room for the new iPhones.

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RBC Capital Markets polled 6,000 consumers and found that “an impressive 26 percent of respondents who intend to purchase an iPhone are new” to Apple’s ecosystem, with the majority coming from Android, Amit Daryanani, an analyst at RBC, wrote in a Sept. 17 note to investors.

A key question about the opening weekend is whether Apple will have enough inventory to satisfy demand.

Carl Howe, an analyst at 451 Research, said Apple may sell 12 million to 15 million of the new devices this weekend. Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., wrote in a note to investors that he’s projecting sales of 7 million to 8 million, which would fall short of last year’s first weekend sales of 9 million units of the iPhone 5s and 5c. Sacconaghi attributed it partly to supply constraints and to the decision that China isn’t one of the first countries to receive the devices.

Apple isn’t rolling out the new iPhones in China on opening weekend, as it did last year with the iPhone 5s and 5c. China is one of the largest emerging markets of smartphone buyers, with carrier China Mobile Ltd.’s subscriber base at 794 million alone.

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The new iPhones are targeted directly at bigger-screen smartphones, which are popular with consumers in Asia, run on Google Inc.’s Android mobile software and are built by Samsung Electronics Co., HTC Corp. and other manufacturers. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are part of a broad product rollout aimed at bolstering Apple’s lineup ahead of the holiday shopping season.

At San Francisco’s Apple store, a line began forming two days before the iPhone’s availability. Apple employees were handing out bottles of water, taking photos and asking customers what phones they planned to get.

“I am really excited about iPhone 6 — it is bigger and faster,” said Huong Dinh, 47, who stood at the front, clutching an iPhone 5. She planned to buy two, she said, one for her and one for her husband.

Toward the end of the line was Cassidy Szarnicki, 19, a freshman at the University of California at Los Angeles who arrived at 7 a.m. Thursday in San Francisco to get an iPhone 6. “I know the pre-order was pretty long and I wanted to get it pretty much when it first came out instead of waiting two months or so,” she said. “You’ve got to be the first in line to get it.”

Most of the crowd held their current iPhones except for one man who had a Samsung. He wasn’t interested in talking about why he was in line for a bigger Apple phone.

— With assistance from Doni Bloomfield in New York.