Mac sales 'defy all logic,' says analyst

Apple’s Mac sales in the U.S. last quarter were up between 7 percent and 12 percent, according to estimates published Wednesday by research firms Gartner and IDC.

Both companies said Apple will post numbers significantly above the industry average for the company’s fiscal fourth-quarter, but disagreed on the Mac sales gains over the same period a year ago.

Gartner estimated that Apple sold 1.57 million Macs in the U.S. for the quarter ending Sept. 30, an increase of 6.8 percent over 2008. IDC, on the other hand, put Mac sales at 1.64 million, or 11.8 percent above last year. In both cases, Apple's performance was higher than the industry average in the U.S., which IDC estimated was 2.5 percent and Gartner had at 3.9 percent.

Apple will not release its official sales figures until Monday, when it will hold a conference call with Wall Street analysts. (Macworld will have live coverage of that call at 2 p.m. PT on Monday.)

“Everyone is guessing at Apple’s numbers,” said Bob O’Donnell, IDC’s vice president of clients and displays. “Here‘s the interesting thing. Last month we called Apple [sales] low, and we got it wrong. I take full blame for that,” O’Donnell admitted. “I thought, ‘How can they possibly maintain share?’ But they defy logic.”

In July, IDC estimated that Apple sold just 1.21 million Macs in the U.S. during the second quarter, which would have put the company down 12.4 percent year-to-year. A week later, however, Apple announced it had sold 1.64 million Macs in the Americas and at retail—the vast bulk of the latter also in U.S. stores—or nearly 2 percent more than the year before. Globally, Apple boosted Mac sales in the second quarter by 4 percent, to 2.6 million machines.

“Their sales just seem to defy all logic,” O’Donnell repeated. “There are obviously a certain number of people buying Macs even in the face of a recession.”

That’s a refrain that most analysts have sung since September 2008, when PC sales began to slump. In the last four quarters, Apple has had only one—the first calendar quarter of 2009—when it sold fewer Macs than the year before. That was also the first time that Apple posted a year-over-year decline in sales since 2003.

Burned last quarter, IDC gave Apple the benefit of the doubt this time, in part because of a turnaround in its analysts’ thinking. “My sense now is that the same things that have driven them above industry average growth in the past are still there,” O’Donnell said.

According to IDC, Apple accounted for 9.4 percent of all U.S. computer sales in the third quarter, up from a 7.6 percent share of sales in the prior period. Gartner, meanwhile, pegged Apple’s part of the pie at a slightly lower 8.8 percent in the third quarter. Both research firms had Apple in the No. 4 spot, behind Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Acer, and ahead of Toshiba.

But Apple’s year-over-year sales growth, although significantly better than in the last two quarters, lags far behind the numbers posted by Acer and Toshiba, which sported year-over-year gains of 48 percent and 37 percent, respectively, in IDC’s estimates, and a whopping 61 percent and 46 percent in Gartner's.

Apple could grab more market share if it lowered prices, but O’Donnell wasn't holding his breath. “The talk on the street is a $799 notebook,” he said, referring to persistent rumors that Apple will introduce a lower-priced MacBook this year. “But I don’t think they care about prices. They’re all about making profit.”

Even so, Apple eventually will probably have to concede that the game has changed, especially in notebooks, where average prices overall have dropped 33 percent in the last two years. “There’s been a total reset on prices,” O’Donnell said, giving a nod to not only the inexpensive netbooks that increasingly dominate the U.S. laptop market, but also the falling prices of mainstream models.

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