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Gold Apple watch could propel sales to new heights

Aaron Pressman

Wall Street has relatively modest expectations for the upcoming Apple (AAPL) watch, but the company may be aiming for a much greater immediate impact.

I’ve been tracking Wall Street analyst forecasts for the watch, which will go on sale in April. Apple has said only that it will offer models at three main price points, but of the prices, it has disclosed just that the low-end watch will self for $350. Analysts have had to make numerous assumptions to fill in the blanks and forecast how much impact watch sales will have on Apple’s finances.

On average, analysts expect Apple will sell 22 million watches this year and 33 million next year, according to the 17 reports I have cataloged. With an expected average selling price of $450, most analysts are predicting that sales of the low-end model will dominate. (The average price is a weighted average based on proportion of sales.)

With those assumptions, Apple could generate almost $10 billion of new revenue this year and $17 billion next year. That’s a huge amount of sales for most companies, but Apple had revenue of $200 billion last year generating net income of $44 billion.

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple had ordered manufacturers to build 5 million to 6 million watches ahead of the April debut.

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The breakdown, according to the Journal’s sources, was said to be 50% of the low-end model, 33% at the middle tier and 17% of the highest-priced, 18-karat gold edition. The gold watch will sell for more than the $4,000 cost of Apple’s most expensive Mac computer, according to the report.

If consumers go along with Apple’s reported watch mix, and one in six opt for the gold model, the average selling price will be much higher. Assuming $500 for the midrange model and $5,000 for the gold watch, the average selling price comes out to almost $1,200.

Start modeling those assumptions and pretty soon Carl Icahn’s Apple target of $216 looks a lot more reasonable. New revenue could total $25 billion this year and $40 billion in 2016.

To be sure, even if the Journal is correct, consumers may not be as enamored with the watch as Apple expects. There is no precedent for selling a luxury gadget at $5,000, especially one that may become outmoded every year or two. And the first-generation Apple watch will have limited battery life and require an iPhone for many functions.

Even after sales commence, analysts may still be left making assumptions. Apple said last year that it won't break out watch sales in its results as it does for sales of the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. Instead, revenue from the new gadget will be lumped in a grab-bag category that will also include sales of iPods and Apple TV boxes.

But with more chatter about the watch, expectations are already rising. Apple shares hit an all-time high of $129.03 on Thursday and have gained 17% so far this year even as the overall market has done little. Further big gains may depend on the popularity of a $5,000 gold watch.