iPad Mini's likely launch date means inventory will be everything, say analysts

Latest-ever new product launch could put Apple in a bind during the holidays if the usual shortages occur

Apple's rumored November launch of a smaller, less-expensive iPad will put the company in a tight spot -- tighter than usual -- if it's not able to build up and maintain adequate supplies through the holiday season, analysts said today.

Earlier this week, speculation resurfaced about an "iPad Mini," the tag given to a 7.85-in. tablet, when Fortune cited a source who claimed Apple would invite reporters, bloggers and analysts next week to an upcoming event.

That rumor was bolstered today by the Wall Street Journal today (paid subscription required), which reported that Apple's Asian suppliers had begun production last month.

Based on past practice, Apple would likely unveil an iPad Mini on Oct. 17 and start selling the tablet -- perhaps at prices as low as $250 -- on Nov. 2.

That date, if true, would be Apple's latest-ever in a calendar year for a new product launch. The company typically ends its introductions in October, and even then, has limited them to relatively minor refreshes of existing products.

On both Oct. 20, 2010, and Oct. 20, 2009 -- the current latest-ever record for a product debut -- Apple started selling revamped MacBook Air notebooks and iMac desktops, respectively. On Oct. 14, 2008, Apple revealed significant changes in its MacBook and MacBook Pro lines by introducing the first "unibody" designs for its laptop line. And last year's iPhone 4S started selling Oct. 14.

"The biggest question [for an iPad Mini introduction in November] would be how much out-of-stock problems there will be," said Steven Baker, a retail analyst with the NPD Group. "Assuming there's huge demand, which I think there will be, will they have enough stock to make it through Dec. 25? If they have just four days of inventory at launch, for example, retailers are not going to like that."

The retailers Baker was talking about would presumably include those that now sell the larger iPad, like Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart.

Customers would also be upset if stocks aren't sufficient, and long shipping delays are slapped into place almost immediately. The problem: The short stretch between early November and the heart of holiday sales, which in the U.S. start on Black Friday, Nov. 23, and run through Christmas, Dec. 25.

The iPhone 5, for instance, which launched Sept. 21, was quickly backordered to three to four weeks, where it remains.

Those kinds of delays could spell problems for an iPad Mini launched so late in the year. Customers, hoping to buy one or more for themselves and as gifts, could read the shipping delays -- especially as Christmas draws near -- realize they have little chance of receiving a Mini before the holiday, and switch their purchase to one of the many 7-in. tablet alternatives, which this year includes Google's Nexus 7 and a revamped Kindle Fire from Amazon.

"The problem is adequate inventory, it always is with Apple," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "If they can't meet what will probably be a very large demand, that's an issue. Frankly, they're not the only company with problems like these. Last year the Kindle Fire had the same problem."

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