For a number of years now, Apple's product launches have been pretty straightforward: announcement, pre-orders, available for purchase both at Retail Stores and online. Recent vintage iPhones and iPads have all followed this basic formula, with long lines at Apple Stores overnight so that enthusiasts could be among the first to get their hands on the new gear.
With the Apple Watch, though, that's all changing. The first part—announcement and then pre-orders—is still in place, but the second part—buying at Retail Stores and online—has been replaced with "order online and wait several months."
Apple Watches ordered today (with the watch going "on sale" and shipping beginning April 24th) are estimated to ship in June, though Apple has hinted that many orders may be received earlier than that.
The company has frequently had shortages of new products at launch, but since there won't be a huge line at Apple Stores on "launch day" (because there won't be any to purchase), it's all highly unusual for Apple. Long lines are fodder for media stories about overwhelming demand and to note how long the first person in line had been waiting.
Analyst Neil Cybart of Above Avalon thinks Apple is learning on the fly with the Apple Watch, making changes to a launch strategy shaped by the uniqueness of the product.
"It's clear Apple is learning as they go with this Watch launch, and at the end of the day, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Everyone who wants an Apple Watch will eventually get one. Instead, the problem seems to center around how Apple releases products with limited supply into such immense demand.
"At first, Apple can just smile, blame supply, and have people wait. But with each new product launch, the situation seems to be getting worse, not better. There is growing evidence that at the very last minute, after pre-orders began, Apple executives changed their Watch launch strategy and messaging related to how the Watch will be sold in Apple Stores."
The Apple Watch is definitely a hit and, after hearing my wife rave about her try-on experience at an Apple Store (and about the watch itself), I'm sure Apple will sell a ton of them. But fulfilling all those orders will be tough.
Last year, I wondered if Apple was losing focus with so many iPad SKUs in its lineup, some 86 different models across 22 different price points. The Apple Watch takes that to a whole new level, with multiple colors and band styles across several different base models of watch.
Forcing everyone who wants one to head to the Apple Online Store is a good way to manage supply—instead of hypothetically discovering that stores in New York are seeing massive demand for the blue sport band, while stores in Florida can't sell a single one, Apple can ship watches from a central warehouse for more logistic simplicity.
This will work for a while. But eventually, Apple will need to stock the watches in the stores, once the company reaches supply/demand balance for the thing.
And Apple's Retail Stores were originally created to showcase and sell Apple's wares when no other retail establishment was interested. To use the stores as a glorified showroom (as they are currently for the Apple Watch) goes against everything the stores were built for.
We'll see what Apple will do in the long run, but for now, expect many people to head to Apple's Stores looking for Apple Watches only to be turned away and sent online to buy—where, at least for now, they'll be waiting weeks to get their precious watches.
Are you disappointed that you can't buy an Apple Watch in a Retail Store on Friday? What do you think of Apple's decision to only sell the Apple Watch online? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.