Why can't Apple meet demand for the iPhone 6?

iPhone 6 demand better-than-expected: Pro
iPhone 6 demand better-than-expected: Pro   

Months after Apple launched its much-hyped iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, the company remains unable to meet the huge demand from consumers.

In late November, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster wrote in a research note that only 58 percent of iPhone 6/6 Plus models were in stock at retail stores nationwide. Thus, two months after the product launch, 42 percent were still unavailable for public sale.

In varying degrees, this scene has played out with each new iPhone release, but this year, the inevitable race to get one–whatever the cost, whatever the inconvenience–was particularly intense. Customers have reported waiting weeks, even months, for online orders, or standing in ridiculously long lines—and even so, many have gone home empty-handed.

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"I'm surprised. That's pretty long at this stage," said Frank Gillett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "But this shows very strong and sustained demand. Good for Apple."

In its fourth-quarter earnings report, Apple CEO Tim Cookacknowledged supply-demand difficulties. "As of today—and certainly as of the end of the quarter, where you're looking at the data—we're not nearly balanced. We're not close. We're not on the same planet. "

He also hailed "the biggest iPhone launch ever with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus." Only weeks into the rollout, Cook told analysts that the demand for the new products was "staggering and geographically broad-based."

This has clearly not hurt Apple's bottom line. After the launch of the iPhone 6/6 Plus, Apple generated its strongest revenue growth rate in seven quarters, far surpassing the previous quarter's expectations and setting a new record for September quarter revenue.

And analysts expect the strong demand to continue. Last month, noting that public demand for the iPhone 6s continued to outstrip supply, analysts upped their earnings targets for Apple. On Nov. 20, one month after the Q4 earnings report announcement–and the same day Munster estimated that Apple was unable to meet the demand for 42 percent of its customers–Piper Jaffray raised its earnings target to $135 per share, up from his previous prediction of $120.

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Even with the huge demand, some industry professionals wonder whether the shortages are a simple supply/demand equation. (An Apple representative declined to discuss the supply shortages with CNBC, referring a reporter to the company's earnings report.)

Is the supply/demand imbalance a strategic move on the part of Apple?

"No one's really familiar with the inner workings of Apple, but my thinking is, this company is too big and too experienced to get it this wrong," said Marlene Morris Towns, a marketing strategy professor at Georgetown University.

"They can still forecast, they can still anticipate the demand. I don't see a plausible explanation as to how they could have miscalculated this much."

Having a shortage could in fact intensify demand for the product. "Apple's marketing plan seems to be to maintain the hype and promote the exclusivity of their products. To keep them hot and buzzworthy," she said. "It's like the nightclub principle—having a line outside is always desirable. It makes people think there's a hot party in there," she said.

Daniel Patterson, a New York-based technology writer and digital strategist, said limiting supply could be a Apple's strategy of controlling sales growth.

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"Constricting a release allows [a product] to have an incremental increase in sales each year," he observed. "If, for example, Apple sells 18 million iPhones this time, what if they only sell 15 million the next time? It's better for them to have products that don't cannibalize each other. They know they have to feed the next cycle of their supply chain."

Perhaps there's a flaw in Apple's supply chain?

An iPhone 6 Plus on display in an Apple store as customers talk with a salesperson.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
An iPhone 6 Plus on display in an Apple store as customers talk with a salesperson.

"My gut feeling is that there's something on the supply side that's causing some sort of hiccup," said Ari Zoldan, founder and CEO of Quantum networks LLC, an e-commerce technology company in New York City.

"I'm 99 percent sure this is not a coordinated marketing strategy. You don't want to create a situation where people are upset with the brand," he said.

Gross miscalculation on the part of Apple is unlikely, said Zoldan, because of the iPhone's stellar sales record over the years has been well-documented. Forecasting future demand would seem to be a straightforward process, he said

"Apple has all the stats," Zoldan said. "They know what the market share is. They know how many phones they need to release to fill the demand. Maybe they found a serious hiccup in the software or hardware and they had to pull that so they didn't have a full release. It's possible."

Forrester's Gillett disagrees with all these conjectures, insisting that Apple is simply the most popular girl at the dance.

"Quite honestly, it's not clear to me anything went wrong. Apple works at such massive volume, they have to organize a multimillion person supply chain," he said. "This is about trying to guess what millions of people will do when you put a product in front of them. What's amazing here is the scale at which Apple actually succeeds at meeting demand. It's jaw-dropping. The logistics they pull off are some of the most amazing logistics you can imagine. And then the product turns out to be more popular than anyone expected!"

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Gillett also scoffs at the idea that Apple is deliberately holding back its distribution as a marketing ploy.

"People come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories but I'm skeptical that Apple would try to engineer something of this scale," he said. "I don't think they'd be able hide a game like that. Can you imagine the negative impact on the company if people thought you were fooling around with their interest in buying a product?"

Meanwhile, consumer frustration is widespread.

"I pre-ordered the iPhone 6 in September. I've been going back, going back, going back for the past two months and it turns out the store actually has no idea when it will arrive," said Paul Bernardini, a senior associate at Eastwick Integrated Marketing in Silicon Valley.