Apple likely to best last year's iPhone sales this quarter, but all eyes are on holiday period

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) will report its quarterly earnings tomorrow and although the performance of the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus will be a key focus, analysts and investors are likely going to be looking for what the company's top executives have to say about the coming holiday quarter to get a true sense of the phones' selling potential.

Apple said on Sept. 28 it sold a total of 13 million iPhone 6s and 6s Plus phones during the first three days that the devices were available. Last year, the company said it sold 10 million new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models on the first weekend of those gadgets' availability. The numbers point to continuing demand for Apple's new phones, noteworthy considering this year is an "s" year for Apple, where the company issues improvements to its existing iPhone models rather than an overhauled design.

The company said last month that all iPhone sales through Sept. 26 will be included in its 2015 fourth fiscal quarter results, and sales thereafter will be included in its 2016 first fiscal quarter results. Pre-orders for the new iPhone models kicked off only on Sept. 12, so Apple won't report a full quarter of sales until it posts earnings for the December quarter in January.

For the fiscal fourth quarter, Apple is expected to sell 48.7 million iPhones, according to a poll of professional and amateur analysts conducted by Fortune. That would represent a 24 percent jump from the year-ago period, when Apple sold 39.27 million iPhones.

While that seems realistic, the key will be what Apple has to say about its fiscal first quarter. As CNET notes, Apple doesn't provide estimates for its iPhone sales, but one can parse them out since Apple does provide a projection of its revenue for the coming quarter, and iPhones now make up around two-thirds of the firm's sales. Apple executives might also spill a few clues about what to expect for the holiday sales period.

Apple will have a tough time besting last year's holiday quarter, the first full quarter of iPhone 6 and 6 Plus sales. Apple sold 74.5 million iPhones in that period and $18 billion in net profit. The results were way above forecasts from most Wall Street analysts and also represented the most profitable quarter ever posted by any publicly traded company.

Fortune's panel of analysts expect Apple to sell a record 78 million iPhones in the holiday quarter, which would represent 4 percent growth, though professional analysts expect only 2 percent growth. Apple could be dragged down by a slower economy in China and the push in the smartphone market for mid-range handsets, costing $300 to $500 on an unsubsidized basis, compared to $649 for a 16 GB iPhone 6s. Apple's comments on China will be watched particularly closely, since it is now the company's largest market for iPhones. Apple CEO Tim Cook indicated in late August that he has confidence in the company's business in China, especially its iPhone sales, despite investors' fears about slowing economic growth in the country.

For more:
- see this CNET article 
- see this Fortune article

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