U.S. Mac sales make small rebound

But iMac supply issues continue two-thirds through the quarter

Apple's U.S. retail Mac sales were up for the first month of the quarter, but not to the extent recently claimed by a Wall Street analyst, the NPD Group said today.

Earlier this week, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, citing NPD data, said that Mac sales in the U.S. were up 31% during January compared to the same month in 2012, hinting at a rebound for the Cupertino, Calif. company, whose Mac sales had tanked in the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2012, dropping an above-industry-average 22%.

Munster attributed the January sales increase to "Apple catching up with iMac supply."

Stephen Baker of the NPD Group, however, said that although Mac sales were up that month, "It wasn't really 31%."

NPD does not make its monthly retail sales figures public, but instead sells its research to others, such as Piper Jaffray, for its customers' own analysis and use.

Baker declined to specify the exact percentage that U.S. Mac sales had climbed last month when compared to the year prior.

"But this year, January was a five-week month, and last year it was a four-week month," Baker noted. He credited that difference, as well as relatively poor sales in January 2012, for the bulk of any percentage increase.

"Everybody was short of product last year because of the Thai flooding," said Baker, referring to massive flooding there in late 2011. The high waters disrupted operations at more than a dozen hard disk drive facilities, caused shortages for the critical component and drove prices skyward.

Apple sold 4 million Macs in the first quarter of 2012, down 23% from the previous quarter's 5.2 million. Mac sales in 2012's first quarter were the year's lowest.

iMac supplies have increased, Baker said, but not enough to significantly raise sales numbers. "There weren't any iMacs available for the last couple of months [before January], and they're still having difficult times getting them on the shelf," said Baker.

Apple blamed iMac shortages for the depressing sales in 2012's final three months. While the company introduced its refreshed all-in-one desktop line last October, the smaller 21.5-in. model didn't appear until a month later, with the more expensive 27-in. iMac following in mid-December.

During last month's quarterly earnings call with Wall Street, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that iMac sales were down 700,000 units in the fourth quarter compared with the same period of 2011.

The two iMac configurations are still in short supply. According to Apple's U.S. e-store, the 21.5-in. system ships two to three weeks after ordering, while the larger 27-in. machine sports a delay of three to four weeks.

iMacs take even longer to reach some countries' customers: Apple's online stores for the U.K., Germany and France show shipping delays of up to six weeks.

Continuing weeks-long shipping delays for the iMac threaten to impact Apple's computer sales for a second consecutive quarter.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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