Lingering iPad Question: Who Gets to Sell It?

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Woo hoo! Now we know when we get to buy the iPad. However, we haven’t been told where we get to buy it. Of course the Apple Stores (both online and off) will carry it, but the end of the press release has a cryptic statement that the iPad will be sold at select (emphasis added) Apple Authorized Resellers.

That probably means not every place that can sell Apple products will be allowed to sell iPads. This is a curious position for Apple and its distribution strategy. Which model does it choose?

Let’s take the iPhone. It’s very limited in distribution. Apple and AT&T controlled sales at the beginning and then eventually allowed places such as Wal-Mart and BestBuy to carry it. Apple COO Tim Cook confirmed BestBuy would sell the iPad but didn’t say who else would have that capability. Logically, anywhere you can buy an iPhone you should be able to buy an iPad, right?

What about any place you can buy an iMac? Only time will tell, but here is what I think will happen. Cue the special effects.

First to get the iPad will be campus bookstores. Education is a key market and I’m sure many parents want to give iPads to their kids before they go off to college. Traditionally in the fall Apple has promotions for education consumers that give away a free iPod when you buy a Mac. That might fall by the wayside to be replaced with a discount deal on an iPad. Most likely the iPad 3G won’t be sold there because campuses already have wireless and campus bookstores won’t have the staff to deal with the nuances of selling AT&T wireless service.

AT&T stores will obviously carry the iPad 3G, but probably not the iPad Wi-Fi. Space is at a premium at AT&T stores and the margins on the iPad are going to be relatively low. I’m going to conjecture it will allow you to buy the iPad without buying a data plan, but will do a hard sell for it. I don’t think AT&T will discount the iPad if you buy a data plan however.

Apple Specialists, who according to Apple “are independent Apple Dealers and Service Providers with a strong commitment to the Mac platform” have also been unofficially slated to sell the iPad Wi-Fi. The Specialist I spoke with could neither confirm nor deny the rumor, but simply smiled at me, which is a good sign. I doubt they’ll get the iPad 3G. Many Specialists often have retail locations that could compete with sales at AT&T locations. Apple will want to protect the AT&T stores as much as possible.

Traditional catalog retailers will also get the iPad Wi-Fi. These places already sell the entire Apple product line except for the iPhone. Unlike the other channels, I think Apple will experiment with allowing these resellers to sell the 3G versions. Catalog companies often sell mobile phones so they have the support to deal with this type of sale. Apple will want to directly compete with the other netbook offerings from these resellers and will want the iPad 3G sales from these vendors.

Left up in the air are the places you can buy an iPod and iPod touch, but not a Mac, such as department stores and even vending machines. These retailers probably won’t be invited to the iPad party. To keep Apple’s brand image going strong, Apple will want some degree of exclusivity as to who gets to sell the iPad. Too many returns and salespeople who aren’t properly trained could sour people on the Apple brand. iPads won’t be sold in vending machines like iPod nanos.

Not mentioned in the press release is the role of the highly profitable AppleCare for these devices. Anyone who sells AppleCare will be able to sell AppleCare for the iPad, but pricing will likely be more expensive than for an iPod or iPhone.

Where do you think you’ll be able to buy an iPad?

Related Research from GigaOM Pro:

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