iPhone 5 Discounts Abound, But Don't Wait Too Long

Walmart joins Best Buy in cutting prices on the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S. But be warned: You have to brave long lines and tired clerks to close the deal.

With some analysts questioning the strength of iPhone 5 sales, Walmart is offering the steepest discounts yet on Apple’s latest iPhone. The giant retailer will sell the 16GB version of the phone for $127, $72 less than Apple’s price of $199. Walmart also announced a price cut on the iPhone 4S, selling the older model for $47, a discount of nearly 50 percent over the price offered by Apple or the major carriers.

Walmart’s move follows an announcement by Best Buy that it will discount the iPhone 5 and IPhone 4S by $50 on comparable models until January 5. (A smaller Radio Shack discount has apparently expired.)

Normally I’d give you the details of Walmart’s offer, but the company says it won’t release details on the Web; you’ll have to come to the store to find out. One thing is clear -- the offer only holds if you’re willing to sign the standard two-year contract with one of the major carriers.

Although Best Buy is advertising the discounted phones online, you have to come into the store to buy them. It’s likely that Best Buy and Walmart are figuring that consumers are more likely to pad the purchases with accessories or other items if they are in the store.

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Annoyingly, Best Buy’s Web site is doing the company (and consumers) a disservice. If you search for an iPhone 5, you’ll find plenty of stores that have it. But if you search for the discounted iPhone 4S, the Web site indicates that the phones are out of stock in many cities, including San Francisco, San Jose, Portland and parts of Chicago. It turns out, though, that the Web site is wrong, something I found out by contacting a spokesman for the company and visiting a store here in San Francisco.

The store, perched on the edge of the city’s Mission District, had iPhone 5s on hand, plus a number of AT&T and Verizon versions of the iPhone 4S that the Web site said were not available at that location. Not surprisingly for an evening this close to Christmas, the store was crowded and there was a long, slow-moving line at the smartphone service counter. I did not envy those blue-shirted clerks their jobs.

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Something is going on with iPhone 5 sales. While we won’t have any definite word until the next time Apple reports its quarterly revenue, a number of analysts believe sales are disappointing. Maybe it’s because of all the competition from Android; maybe some buyers think an iPhone 5S is around the corner. Or maybe it’s simply not true. But this is the first time that an iPhone has been discounted so quickly after its introduction.

My advice: Keep a sharp eye out for sales. I’ll certainly let you know any I hear about. It’s even possible, but not too likely, that Apple itself will respond by doing some discounting of its own. Hitting the stores this time of year isn’t all that much fun, but if you want that discount, you’ll have to grin and bear it.

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