By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
April 19, 2008

Hard on the heels of a 75% price cut in Germany and 100 pounds (37%) off in the U.K. comes a report out of Paris that two high-level executives at Orange, the iPhone’s wireless carrier in France, have flown to Cupertino to figure out what to do about the excess inventory piling up on their shelves.

Under a headline that reads “L’échec de l’iPhone pousse Orange et Apple à renégocier” (“The iPhone’s failure forces Orange and Apple to renegotiate”),
Les Echos
reports that Orange executive director Louis-Pierre Wenes and marketing director Alice Holzman met with Apple COO Tim Cook earlier this week to hammer out a deal that could lead to a French price cut in the next few weeks.

The sticking point in the negotiations, according to Les Echos: Apple wants Orange to subsidize the cost of the device, as it does all its other models; Orange wants Apple, in return, to sharply reduce or drop entirely the cut it demands of each sale.

The meeting was the latest attempt to sort out the trans-Atlantic inventory imbalance has developed in advance of the second-generation iPhone (or iPhones), now widely expected to arrive in June. While the first-generation continues to sell briskly in the U.S. and has been in short supply in Apple stores for several weeks, European sales are reported to have slowed significantly in advance of the so-called 3G model.

On Friday, the London Times quoted Kathryn Huberty, an Apple (AAPL) specialist at Morgan Stanley, saying that the European carriers had become over-excited by iPhone hype last June, ordered too many, and are now facing “significant” losses on unsold stock.

Apple sold 3.71 million iPhones in the U.S. last year. According to Strategic Analytics, its European partners sold 350,000 through December, considerably less than the 500,000 to 600,000 they had hoped to sell, and only 300,000 in the first quarter of 2008.

Why Apple can’t just re-balance its inventory by redirecting Europe’s unsold iPhones to Apple stores in the U.S. that could use them is a mystery that has even Apple analysts scratching their heads.

“It remains puzzling that iPhone availability has been very scarce in Apple’s US stores, yet seemingly plentiful everywhere else,” Stanford Bernstein’s Toni Sacconaghi wrote earlier this month. “One explanation might be that because iPhone’s supply shortage came at quarter’s end, Apple chose to ship most of its iPhones to the channel, where units would be recognized as sold during the quarter, rather than re-building inventory in its US stores.” (see here)

Is he right? Is Apple manipulating its shipments to dress up its Q2 report? We’ll likely find out on Wednesday, when Apple reports its quarterly earnings and releases numbers on its domestic and overseas iPhone sales.

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