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Trade-in volume signals 'tremendous' sales for iPhone 6

Big screen rumors and the usual even-numbered-year redesign combine to prompt early adopters to raise cash for next month's new iPhone

Apple will have a "tremendous" opening for the iPhone 6, buyback vendors said today, basing their predictions on activity so far by consumers locking in prices for their old smartphones.

"There's tremendous pent-up demand for a larger-screen iPhone," said Jeff Trachsel, chief marketing officer at NextWorth, a Billerica, Mass.-based company that buys used consumer electronics devices, including tens of thousands of iPhones each year, and resells them domestically or overseas.

Trachsel and others based their opinions on an increase this week in the number of quote requests for used iPhones.

"We've seen a lift of about 350% from the baseline this week," said Trachsel, referring to quote volume since Monday compared to the average of the month prior to that. "That's up from a lift of 182% last year, or almost two times the acceleration."

NextWorth has a policy of honoring price quotes for 30 days, so it mined its data on iPhone quote requests this week because it marks the beginning of the 30-day period that would last through the expected sales launch of the iPhone 6. Most analysts, Apple watchers and pundits believe Apple will unveil new iPhone(s) on Sept. 9 and begin selling them on Sept. 19.

Boston-based Gazelle has seen a similar boom in quote volumes. "We've seen a 50% increase compared to 2013," said Alyssa Voorhis, a senior tech analyst at Gazelle, in an interview.

On Monday, Gazelle kicked off a lock-in that guarantees quotes through Oct. 10.

NextWorth and Gazelle offer to lock in prices so customers will know how much they'll be paid for their used iPhones but will still have enough time to buy and activate new phones before they have to ship their old ones to the buyback company.

It's normal, said both Trachsel and Voorhis, for their companies to see a spike in quotes in even-numbered years, because that's when Apple historically introduces new iPhone designs. In 2012, for example, the new iPhone 5 was much different from 2011's iPhone 4S -- for one thing, it a bigger display -- but the iPhone 5S of 2013 was somewhat similar to its predecessor.

The every-other-year phenomenon is well known, of course, because Apple capitalizes on the exterior redesign -- a "form factor" change in Trachsel's words -- to sell more iPhones. "The form factor is the single biggest reason to trade up," said Trachsel today in an interview. "If the new model looks the same as last year's, we don't see the same interest in trading in."

So part of the upswing in quote volume -- a reflection of consumer interest in trading in their current phones for cash -- is driven simply by the fact that everyone anticipates an iPhone design refresh, and they would be anticipating that even if the talk of larger screens had not been incessant.

But, judging from the early data, Trachsel and Voorhis were both confident that the iPhone 6 will be a much bigger hit than either last year's iPhone 5S or the preceding year's iPhone 5, at least in part because it will come with a larger screen. Apple sold 51 million iPhones in the first full quarter after the introduction of the iPhone 5S and 5C last year, and 48 million in the same period of 2012 after the iPhone 5 went on sale.

One reason for that confidence, said Voorhis, is that Gazelle has already seen the number of requests for price quotes on used Android smartphones jump between 15% and 30% from the 30-day period prior to Monday. "Apple might finally offer what some Android users have been clamoring for, a larger iPhone," she said.

The speculation about bigger iPhones has centered on the possibility of one with a 4.7-in. screen and another with a 5.5-in. display.

As the expected Sept. 9 announcement approaches -- that date has been widely reported for at least the last two weeks -- others will get on the trade-in bandwagon. In the past, trade-in volume has climbed when a definitive announcement date is reported and then soared as soon as Apple's introductory event concluded.

"Announcement day is Gazelle's Christmas," said Voorhis.

That has shown up in the mix of iPhone models people are requesting quotes for. NextWorth, for example, has seen a big shift in the mix: In the 30 days prior to Monday, 69% of the iPhone quotes were for the iPhone 4 and 4S; this week 61% of the quotes have been for the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S.

"Early adopters," said Trachsel of the latest quotes. "Before it was people looking to get a new discounted 5S [iPhones], not the [iPhone 6] early adopters like this week. Early adopters are willing to pay termination fees to get the very newest."

Voorhis also cited a recent survey commissioned by Gazelle to back up her contention that the new iPhone would be a hit.

"Forty-six percent of all smartphone owners want an iPhone 6, and they're particularly interested because of the larger screen, even though they haven't seen it yet, only bits and pieces of [leaked] components," Voorhis said. Another 21% said they were undecided, but she suspected that many of those were only waiting for confirmation of the rumors.

"I have no doubt that this season will eclipse trading volume [records] for us," Voorhis said.

Gazelle iPhone 5 offer
Gazelle quoted $175 for a two-year-old iPhone 5 with 16GB of storage space that now is on Verizon's network. Rival NextWorth quoted $190 for the same model on Friday. (Image: Gazelle)
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