How many phones did Apple sell on night one?

Elmer Bulwer-Lytton doesn’t know, but a simple problem like that isn’t going to stop him from pulling numbers out of…let’s say “thin air”:

Apple and AT&T (T) are not releasing sales figures, but piecing together eye-witness accounts from stores around the country and doing some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, it’s clear that Apple sold tens of thousands of iPhones — and perhaps as many as 200,000 — the first night, not millions.

There are several reports of AT&T stores selling out their consignment of iPhones — 60 in one Wall Street store, 40 in another, 20 in a smaller store.

[…]If you generously assume that 500 iPhones were sold at each of Apple’s 164 retail outlets (including the tiny mall stores), and that all AT&T stores sold out an average of 50 phones, that’s

                                500 * 164 = 82,000
                                50 * 1,800 = 90,000
                                TOTAL   = 172,000

Not bad for one night’s work. Because that doesn’t include online sales, it’s roughly in line with earlier analysts’ estimates that Apple could sell 400,000 iPhones in the first few days.

Apple has not commented on the estimates. Steve Jobs has said he hopes to capture 1% of the worldwide cellphone market by 2008, which comes out to roughly 10 million iPhones over the next 18 months.

UPDATE: An AAPL watcher whose opinion I trust thinks this estimate for AT&T sales may be 25% to 35% too low. He believes the smaller AT&T stores had 60 to 70 phones and the larger ones 100 or more.

He also points out that many, of not most, customers at Apple stores bought two iPhones. If we assume that half did, the numbers come out somewhat differently:

                                500 * 164 * 1.5 = 123,000
                                50 * 1,800 = 90,000
                                TOTAL   = 213,000

Or, rephrased more tersely: “If we take a few guesses at how many phones a few stores had and extrapolate them nationwide with absolutely no supporting evidence, we can come up with a number that makes it seem like Apple didn’t sell as many phones as some unnamed people projected they would.”

Elmer has no idea how many iPhones each Apple or AT&T store had, nor does he know if each store of the same size got the same size allotment. Small stores in big cities might have gotten more phones than small stores in areas with less population – or vice-versa, as Apple and AT&T may have figured that the fewer stores serving a population, the more phones each would need. AT&T Wireless doesn’t serve 10% of the US, so Apple stores in those areas may not have gotten many phones at all.

MDJ‘s publisher got in line at a “smaller” (strip mall storefront) AT&T store at 5:30 PM local time, and was in the store by 7:00 PM purchasing an 8GB phone. He was #64 in line, and there was absolutely no indication that the 35-40 people behind him in line were being refused tickets or turned away. Like other AT&T stores, purchasers were only allowed one iPhone per trip through the line, but Elmer again has no evidence that “many, if not most” Apple store customers bought two iPhones. It’s all voodoo math.

We’ll know when Apple and AT&T issue press releases saying so. Since Apple has already said it will book iPhone revenue over a 2-year period for each phone sold, the company will only book 1/24 of the revenue for any phones sold yesterday and today during the June 2007 quarter that ends tonight. With just 1/24 of two days’ worth of sales going on Apple’s Q3 books, it would be amazing if the iPhone makes any meaningful impact on the Q3 financial results in a few weeks.

Until the companies tell us, though, it’s all invented statistics. All we really know is that about 2000 retail outlets started selling the iPhone on Friday night at 6:00 PM local time. If you believe rumors that Apple had at least 1,000,000 iPhones ready for retail sale on Friday night, then on average, each outlet would have had around 500 units available – some more, some less. If you really think each outlet only had about 100 phones (averaging across both Apple and AT&T stores), then you think Apple had only 200,000 retail units ready on Friday.

And you’re free to believe that, but you’d then have to ask yourself why Apple kept running expensive iPhone TV ads over the past two weeks if the company knew it couldn’t possibly come close to meeting demand. That would just be wasting money, and Apple’s grown pretty good at not doing that.