Shipped and sold: A brief introduction

Markets are difficult to measure. Mainly because the information is not easy to obtain and that which is obtained is not made public. Collecting, analyzing and filling in the gaps is big business with many firms involved in selling it.

However, with all the analysts and companies selling and promoting their “numbers” it’s important to understand the difference between the methods used. There are for instance at least the following measurements:

  1. Units sold to end users. For example NPD or GfK data of retail transactions. Also Gartner’s estimates for phone units sold.
  2. Units sold to the channel. For example units recognized on income statements usually reported by companies. Also IDC’s estimates for phone units sold.
  3. Units in use. For example comScore and Nielsen survey data.
  4. Units “activated”. The measurement Google uses to describe Android performance.
  5. Intent to buy. For example ChangeWave surveys of early adopters.
  6. Utilization rate. For example browser statistics.

Each measurement tells a different story about the market but the best story is told when all data is analyzed in a combined integrated market review.

Before diving into that it’s important to understand the difference between the first and second measurements or the difference between shipped and sold.

What does “Sold” mean?

Let’s say that you sell a phone to another party. What constitutes a sale? The sales agreement? That you shipped it? That he wanted it? That you were paid for it?

What if he changes his mind and returns it? Is it still a sale? What if a manager’s bonus depends on these sales? What if the company’s share price depends on these sales? Is there a way to rig the accounting?

As it turns out, yes there are; many ways. Unethical and fraudulent practices happen surprisingly often. A classic instance would be: A customer is shipped ten phones, though he only wants one, and he gets paid to ship the other nine back, after the close of the year.

The sales manager records ten times the sales he actually made, making ten times the commission and the company’s stock price rises. To compound the offense, the manager could also tip his friends to short the stock at the end of the year, leaving investors “holding the bag” when the inevitable correction follows.

There have been so many cases of this kind of accounting fraud that the FASB (GAAP), SEC, and IFRS have placed a very stringent definition on “revenue recognition”. This means that although you can sell all you want, the company can only recognize the proceeds and profit in the financial statements according to strict rules.

In the case of hardware (Sales of Goods), the customer must receive it (“delivery has occurred”), and like it enough to not return it (“amount to be refunded”), and be able to pay for it (“collection is probable”). If some are projected to be returned or unpaid, that percent is subtracted from total revenue. In the case of software (Sales of Services), it is generally accounted for over a time period. And because it is customary to send the customer upgrades, the revenue must be spread out over the time the service is provided. (“upgrade rights … 24 to 48 months.”)

It gets complicated when a piece of hardware has upgradeable software. The rules used to stipulate that the hardware, in its entirety, must be accounted for as a service and have subscription accounting. This is how Apple had to report sales during the first few years of the iPhone. It still defers some revenues for its hardware, mainly on account of iCloud, but the vast bulk of hardware revenue (96%) is now accounted upfront, recognized upon the product’s acceptance by customers. 4% is for software upgrades and is accounted for over a specific lifetime of the product (24 months in the case of the iPhone).

What does “Shipped” mean?

The discussion so far implies that if a product that is accounted for as “Sold” on an income statement does not mean that it’s in the hands of an end user. These “revenue recognized” products are sold to a distributor, typically for a phone that’s an operator.

These sales satisfy the requirements for financial reporting as revenues booked. But they are not in the hands of users. Nor are they “activated” and they don’t generate page views that are measured by web analytics companies. Most analysts and companies now use the phrase “Shipped” to describe these revenue-recognized units though it’s also common to hear “sold”.

When a product sells to end users it’s sometimes called “sell-through”. It’s counterpart is “sell-in” which is sales to the channel distributors.

A big gap between sell-in and sell-through might imply large amounts of in-channel inventory. This is product that is sitting either in stores or in warehouses or on trucks in transit. If sales are steady, the inventory is measured in time as in “weeks of inventory”. This means that the excess is expected to be sold within a fixed time frame if shipments were to end. The smaller this amount, the better or “tighter” the operations are. Inventory, as Tim Cooks says, is fundamentally evil. It eats capital and erodes profitability.

Sometimes miscalculation of sell-through could result in vast amounts of inventory that has to be returned by distributors. That inventory is either written off or sold at fire sale prices resulting in a “write-down”. This happened recently with both the HP TouchPad and with the RIM PlayBook. This special charge against income is a one-time (usually) incident but it can also affect a firm’s reputation with channel partners for a long time. This type of failure is very costly.

Therefore what matters most is to keep the difference between Sell-in and Sell-through as small as possible. However, it can’t be too small. Sometimes if Sell-through is too fast, you get stock-outs which means that there is more demand than supply and sales opportunities are missed. This has happened many times with iPhones and iPads. This is also an unwanted situation (unless there was too much inventory in the channel during the previous period and thus it was being drained in the current period.)

The chart to the left shows how the phone market looked for various vendors last quarter. I compiled the data based on Gartner’s “sales to end users” and IDC’s “shipments” data. Two vendors had higher sell-through than sell-in (Nokia and LG) probably because they were draining excess inventory. The others had channel inventory of between 5% and 10% of units shipped.

This ratio is shown below in a chart comparing the largest phone vendors.

Management is often rated for performance on this metric, as they should be, since it’s a measure of operational skill. However, there are many factors that affect overall performance.

New product launches, windows of opportunity related to seasonal buying patterns, anticipating macroeconomic slowdowns, even natural disasters and legal challenges can affect this metric.

Understanding the overall market requires an appreciation of this distinction but also an understanding of all the other metrics listed above and what stories they tell.

Notes: My thanks to Michael Dediu for input on this discussion.

  • Thanks for an excellent primer on the industry. Some quick follow questions:

    Has there been any pressure on FASB and IASB to revise standards to align revenue with units that actually reach the end user? Also, what constitutes inventory that sits on the manufacturer’s books? The whole sell-in concept makes things confusing to me as I would imagine inventory as exclusive of this figure.

    Again thanks for making us a bit smarter every day…

    • Inventory on the books of a manufacturer would be due to product produced but not yet sold (to anybody). There is also Work in Process Inventory which is partially assembled units. Regarding sale to end user accounting, this is not feasible as the risk of a sale to the end user (and thus the reward) is shared with the channel. Imagine the scenario for something other than electronic goods. Consider a shoe manufacturer. As the shoes are made and shipped around world-wide how could the company track the point when they are sold and when they come into use? The merchandise could change hands multiple times before it gets into end user hands. They could be sold from wholesaler to retailer and the retailer may resell to a discounter who then may resell to a closeout specialist. Some of this happens with phones as well. Because there is a risk of not selling it at all, the channel “marks up” the product and tries to get a reward for holding on to the product.

      • @pxldot:disqus @asymco:disqus Makes sense. Thanks for the clarification. Are provisions for returned unsold goods more or less common in the industry? Are those arrangements disclosed in the Notes for publicly traded companies? My angle is more to understand the true competitiveness of industry players than say, for tax purposes, which is probably what drives more of the accounting basis.

      • pxldot

        They are extremely common. I am not absolutely positive as I do not read every annual report, but most (if not all) companies will have a not disclosure indicating something along the lines of “Company X make an allowance for returned goods based on historical rates of return”. Unless the amount is extremely significant (and for Apple, with its high customer satisfaction ratings, one would imagine it is not for them in particular) and would affect the decisions of investors in a meaningful way it is unlikely to be disclosed in any more detail than this.

      • Michael Dediu

        It is not just common, it is universal. It is a FASB/IASB requirement for all financial statements. The only question is the size of the provision.

      • Michael Dediu

        It is not just common, it is universal. It is a FASB/IASB requirement for all financial statements. The only question is the size of the provision.

      • There can be many provisions. For example there is a provision warranty expense and perhaps for returned goods. I believe that would depend on the type of contracts signed with distributors. My guess is if a retailer reserves the right to return then there has to be a provision. I’m ready to be shown as wrong on this however.

      • pxldot

        Depending on the specific terms of the contract, a right to return may be indicative that Apple retains managerial control/ has not passed risks of rewards of ownership, which would dissallow revenue recognition altogether.
        I would be interested to see when warranty provisions are made on sales to the channel — I don’t think sell-in would necessarily create the liability on Apple’s part, and that it probably only arises on sell-through, but it would be an interesting accounting choice.

    • pxldot

      There is no basis for aligning the definition of revenue with sales to end users. A sale is a sale, regardless of who is doing the purchasing. So long as there is reasonable likelihood of collectability, no rights of return, measurable cash flows, etc, an operator and a consumer are the same. There are effectively two “inventories” — the inventory sitting on the company’s books, which would be all goods manufactured but not shipped to operators yet (or, that have been shipped, but have some sort of return or sell-back arrangement with the operator), and the channel inventory which, assuming there are no return arrangements, are goods sold to operators that would be inventory on their books, not the phone vendor’s (meant to satisfy near-term consumer demand).

      • Steve Weller

        “There is no basis for aligning the definition of revenue with sales to end users. A sale is a sale, regardless of who is doing the purchasing.”

        But there is a huge difference in the way these two events are associated with marketing the SUCCESS of a product, and that is the issue with “shipped vs. sold”.

        There are a small number of channel customers who are prepared to accept a limited level of inventory, so sales to this group (sell-in) demonstrate a very limited product success, albeit an early one. Although it is part of product success, it’s not a good predictor of product success. There are many companies who would like you to believe it is, however, because they know that people would prefer to buy “winning” products.

      • pxldot

        I certainly wouldn’t contend that a sale to the channel and a sale to an end customer have the same “value”. Obviously, results can be inflated by selling into the channel. From an accounting rules perspective, though, so long as the criteria are met (collectibility, measurability, no rights of return, expenses can be measured, no continuing managerial involvement, etc) both are justifiably treated the same.
        Many things are treated equally in accounting where they are not equivalent in “real” business. The role of accounting is not to create arbitrary value judgements but to provide a consistent measurement framework across companies.
        If we start saying that a sale to an end customer is more valuable than to a channel partner, and that the accounting should reflect this, we may as well have Apple capitalize its “cool factor”, design talent, presence in popular media, etc.

    • FalKirk

      “…. thanks for making us a bit smarter every day…”-nuttmedia

      Well said.

  • gbonzo

    Your post is badly flawed.

    When Tim Cook says that inventory is evil, he is NOT talking about channel inventory. He means Apple internal inventory, which is extremely lean quarter after quarter. Apple capital use for unsold finished products, half-finished products and components is minimal to the point of absurdity. Once Apple sells the product to the operator, then any Apple capital that was tied to the product is released to other uses. Apple has booked the sale and essentially also gotten the money. The product is now in the channel. Any capital that is tied to the product now is operator’s capital. This is not a concern for Apple, it is now a concern for the operator CFO.

    Apple management does a fantastic job for keeping the lowest internal inventory of any phone maker. Apple has reported $1.1 billion of internal inventory as of March 31st. The net sales for the quarter was $39 billion. This inventory turnover ratio of 35 is insane. It has nothing to with the reported channel inventory. Just for iPhones, the channel inventory was 8.6 million units.

    “Therefore what matters most is to keep the difference between Sell-in and Sell-through as small as possible.” Not true. Apple wants to keep 4-6 weeks of channel inventory, as do most other phone makers. They have estimated that this is the correct size so that the products flow properly to customers. All of these iPhones are out of Apple balance sheets. Apple has already shipped AND sold them to the operator. Apple wants to keep internal inventory as small as possible.

    “Management is often rated for performance on this metric, as they should be, since it’s a measure of operational skill.” Again, this applies for internal inventory, not channel inventory. A graph about internal inventory would show Apple as a clear leader. A proper graph about channel inventories would show everyone having about 4-6 weeks of so of channel inventory. Your graph shows just a three month change in channel inventory. Rather meaningless in this context.

    Terminology: Shipped and Sold. So confusing to start calling sell-through as Sold. For Apple, shipped and sold are essentially the same thing. When Apple ships an iPhone, it also sells it to the channel. The difference you do want to make is between sell-in and sell-through, but for Apple Inc., a sell-in is a sale. Apple Inc. has sold it to a customer called Verizon Wireless or something like that.

    • Of course Cook is referring to internal inventory, but the “evilness” of inventory is broadly applicable. Retailers are also keen on having rapid turnover as are suppliers and anyone else in the value chain. Channel inventory is not “correct” for any situation. Obviously, keeping too much (channel stuffing) destroys value. Just in time production and distribution have been the goals for many an industry. The level phones have (4 to 6 weeks) is a “target” only insofar as it’s how the industry is able to sell product today. There is no fundamental law that says that this cannot be reduced and if it is reduced then more value will be unlocked.

      • gbonzo

        Yes, large channel inventory is a problem for the channel (operator or other reseller), because it ties capital. It is not a capital allocation problem for a manufacturer like Apple.

        Now look at your “Units Unsold by manufacturers” graph for a moment. About that graph you wrote: “Management is often rated for performance on this metric…”

        So flawed in this context.

      • Do you mean to tell me that if Tim Cook said that iPhone has 15 weeks inventory Wall Street wouldn’t press the sell button?

      • gbonzo

        No, I said channel inventory is not a CAPITAL ALLOCATION problem for a manufacturer. It can be a problem otherwise, if it indicates low sell-through, which it turn indicates low sell-in in the future.

        All I can really say is that please don’t advocate the terms Shipped and Sold to be used like that. Apple (the company) SELLS the product at the sell-in moment. End-user buys the product at the sell-through moment. Between these moments, the product belongs to the channel inventory.

      • Jony

        gbonzo is a bozo….Horace for president

      • Jeff g

        I would never want to see Horace as President. Do you have any idea how much that would distract him from his Asymco duties?! 😉

      • Jimmy

        No he’s not – he is trying to help in making this site better. His tone is a little aggressive but but I don’t think that devalues the effort.

      • Michael Dediu

        The whole point of this article is to differentiate between “sell” for financial reporting purposes, sell for cash receipts purposes, sell for Wall St analysts purposes.

        They are at different times, and for different numbers.

        The channel inventory does belong to someone, either the manufacturer or the distributor/carrier. Someone has to report those numbers on his balance sheet as inventory.

        FASB/IASB revenue recognition may require the manufacturer to report “channel” inventory as its own inventory. Ie. Apple may be required to report ATT’s inventory as it’s own. If it is in Apple inventory, that means it is not yet sold, which means the earnings/sales reports are less than they would otherwise. This is true even though the merchandise is in ATT’s possession…

        An alternative is to defer revenue (through some fancy accounting), until ready to be recognized as true revenue. This deferred revenue is listed as a liability on the balance sheet, to offset the cash or accounts receivable asset.

      • gbonzo

        It is difficult to imagine that the very small internal inventory of Apple would contain much of finished devices in AT&T’s possession.

        There is a lot of confusion in the world about the basic concepts related to sell-in and sell-through. I would like to have those basic concepts crystal clear. This blog post achieves the opposite, it confuses things a lot. It uses confusing terms and does not make a proper distinction between internal inventory and channel inventory. There are nicely named chapters “What does Shipped/Sold mean” but I had to read very carefully to understand what was meant by them and I found the use of the terms to be very confusing, in my opinion.

        IASB and FASB are not evil. If their standards, in some rare case, force a manufacturer to have a device in its own balance sheets, then so be it. We can still use the unit sales number, the revenue figure, the balace sheet figures and channel inventory number provided by the vendor in all of our analysis.

        The basic concepts:

        Sell-in: A manufacturer has sold the device either to end user or to the channel. It has also shipped it and essentially gotten the money (in cash or receivables). Nitpicking about any more details is left to wannabe accountants. Calculating sell-in: manufacturer reports this, if it reports any unit sales numbers at all.

        Channel inventory: Devices that are between sell-in and sell-through, in the possession of an operator or another reseller. Calculating channel inventory: some manufacturers report this.

        Sell-through: End-customer buys the device. Calculating sell-through: sell-in plus/minus change in channel inventory.

      • Michael Dediu

        Most everyone on this site is an accountant, whether they “wannabe” one or not.

        Whenever you use terms like inventory and sales, you are using age-old accounting terminology. It pays to learn what they mean, and in which context.

        They have different meanings in managerial accounting (which most analysts practice) than in financial accounting (which the SEC/FASB requires). They are even more different in tax accounting, which the IRS requires and is rarely discussed here.

        FASB rules do not distinguish between a successful company (like Apple) and an unsuccessful company (like RIM). They are both held to the same conservative standards, for the safety and protection of the investors.

        And yes, analysts can and often do use other metrics to supplement the financial reports and disclosures.

      • This is not going to happen. Not because Wall street is not willing to do their part, but because Apple has too much data to let this happen. I have been enjoying your posts so much that I was missing the forest ecosystem for all the trees. Your regular dissection of the public information made me wonder what Apple could do with their private information. See the post above for details. The best part is this is the predictability that Apple has that no one has been able to explain. They actually have the data to make multibillion dollar bets time after time in Capital expenses because they can be so sure of their sales rates. How else are you going to place an order for 50 million iPhones and iPads next quarter if you don’t have this data? The leverage this gives them in the industry is just mind blowing.

        It also explains why Apple charges so much for custom builds. Adding memory for a Macbook pro sure does not seem to be worth $200, but if you have a whole other production line that is much more expensive to run that makes these type of orders, then you have a reason to charge more.

      • I’ve always thought that although I can scrape up a few grains of data found lying around and shape them into some pattern, Apple has a mountain of granite to mine. To be sure, so do Google and Facebook, but there is a quality to Apple’s data that may be hard to duplicate.

  • M.

    Horace, thank you as always.

    When Apple allocates an iphone to be sold in its stores, when does it recognize revenue? When it is sold to an end user? Or does Apple sell it to a subsidiary (a channel) in a manner that allows Apple to recognize that sale at the time it is sold to the subsidiary?

    • pxldot

      It is only recognized when they sell it to an end user. If a company owns a subsidiary, selling to them would do no good from a consolidated point of view. The consolidated financial statements that an investor would see would have removed the effects of what amounts to transfers within the consolidated entry (i.e., revenue would be decreased for the selling subsidiary).

    • I need to check this again but as I recall Apple is recognizing revenue from operators beginning at the point the phone is shipped to the operator, while recognizing revenue from Apple stores at the point the phone is actually sold.

      • That is correct. iPhones in retail store inventory aren’t sold and are recorded on Apple’s balance sheet as inventory. Sales from Apple’s online store to end users aren’t counted as sold until the customer aknowledges receipt, i.e. signs for the deliver, since Apple retains liability on the goods in transit. Shipments to operators and resellers are counted as sold when shipped from Apple since liability transfers at that point.

      • jim_zellmer

        This is an area to watch over time. Other industries have tactically timed channel activity that they own or substantially influence at quarter or year end. High margin beverage concentrate is one example.

      • iphoned

        I believe, it would be an “illegal accounting” act to recognize goods shipped to one’s own retail stores as “sales”.

  • M.

    Horace, thank you as always.

    For an iphone to be sold in an Apple store, when does Apple recognize the sale (only the hardware)? When the iphone is sold to end user? Or does Apple sell it to a subsidiary in a manner that allows it to recognize revenue sooner than a sale to an end user?

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  • Apple can track sell through as units activated per time per model of phone. The iPhone is a product tailor made to give its manufacturers this data. The iPhone’s serial number, activation, and software update would allow Apple to estimate how long it takes to activate, how long it is used for, how many sales are repeat sales and the number accounts a phone is activated on. Perhaps this is the data that allows for the unprecedented supply chain management. The lack of options on the 3 models makes it easy to predict when one model is growing more popular. No other company has so much data about its product sales, and so little variation in inventory. Imagine your shoe maker having only 3 shoe sizes and one color. If he made an average of 2 million pairs a day and could estimate demand out for a period of weeks then he could actually get the data needed to change his production on a daily basis. Scheduling Foxconn workers for months ahead of launch would allow the productivity of workers and production lines that cannot be matched by any other manufacturer. The other important piece of information here is the seasonality of sales. With 5 product launches in 90% of the worlds markets, Apple has the statistical depth of data on the annual, seasonal, and daily purchase patterns to predict sales based on the time of the launch and the market entered. This allows Apple to plan for a product intro in America in December and China in January so as to maximize sales potential. It is not magic or genius, it is simple economic theory run with highly granular data running in realtime on usage and purchase rates.

    • This is true, and a very good reason why Apple is able to manage it operations so well. However, this is an advantage unique to Apple or perhaps to some other smartphone vendors who can track activations.

      • No one has such simple data set. 3 phones with identical parts. Merely add ram and you have the next model. Who else can order 25 million identical chipsets, batteries, or screens? The simplicity makes the data even more powerful. They can literally book enough processors or cases or screens to pay for an additional plant for the respective manufacturers. Look at the deal from the manufacturers perspective. Apple has enough cash in the bank to sign off on the contract to get the loan needed to increase production. Apple can schedule the roll out of its phone so that the production capacities of its suppliers remain maximized. If I wrote the contract so that I promised to keep your factory at full capacity, how much of a discount could you give me on your product? Then I promised to use the older factory or machines to make lower price point phones.

        Samsung with their own in house production capacity must bet the company on each generation of phones. The reason they are focused on the screen is this is one area where their control of the newest technology gives them an advantage over Apple. They need the demand Apple represents to keep all their other different production lines running at full tilt so they can maximize their profits from the high end phones.

    • John

      Yet Apple does not get it right.
      How many stock-outs have they had at product launch?
      How many times do they have excess stock at retailers and their own stores.

      You would think that Apple would be great at inventory managements since they have only a few products, and are anal about collecting product information (serial number, activation, and software update, etc.)


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  • BoydWaters

    This screed on game console channel stuffing in 2007 may be of interest:

    Daniel Eran Dilger’s style of tech punditry is perhaps the bipolar opposite of Asymco’s careful analysis. But he was fond of calling out Microsoft on channel-stuffing shenanigans in the pre-iPhone days. Zune, anyone?

  • BoydWaters

    This screed on game console channel stuffing in 2007 may be of interest:

    Daniel Eran Dilger’s style of tech punditry is perhaps the bipolar opposite of Asymco’s careful analysis. But he was fond of calling out Microsoft on channel-stuffing shenanigans in the pre-iPhone days. Zune, anyone?

  • BoydWaters

    This screed on game console channel stuffing in 2007 may be of interest:

    Daniel Eran Dilger’s style of tech punditry is perhaps the bipolar opposite of Asymco’s careful analysis. But he was fond of calling out Microsoft on channel-stuffing shenanigans in the pre-iPhone days. Zune, anyone?

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  • First of all thanks for what I perceive as a great post. It seems to explain a lot of things that I didn’t know before and I usually love that.

    Now the comment at the bottom makes me feel a bit weary. You thank Michael which gives the impression that he shed some light on some aspects you didn’t understand yourself fully at first or he helped you flesh out the details. This usually makes me ask myself where the author got his information.

    Would it be possible to give us additional reading material or links to sources from where you took your information? I tend to believe what you say, Horace, but to be honest “trust” isn’t something you should build knowledge on.

    Please don’t think of this as criticism. It’s just that in the past I fell flat on my nose with information I carried around for years in my head that I’ve been given by teachers, family members and friends that I thought were true just to bring them up in conversation and then someone who knew more than my other peers have me corrected, pointing to further reading and better information.

    I know giving away your sources leads to giving away your material for free and that’s a hard thing to do. I’ve done graphs for the last two quarters for the PC market shares and 99% of the people who stay longer than a minute on my site are there to copy my material. I’m honestly not here to ask for your material for free, I just want to know more about the way accounting is done in the phone manufacturing world. I don’t need the sources for your numbers, just more information on how accounting is done and what you base this article on.

    • Michael is studying for certification as a financial accountant and has been reading the subject closely. He provided the examples of how “cheating” can occur. There is a lot more information in this subject area that is not included here but a comprehensive review would take volumes.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’m going to trust you that the information is accurate since your numbers always are. Overall a great post and information that I didn’t know I wanted but am now glad I have 🙂

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