New BlackBerry hits Canadian shelves, but hard sales figures weeks away

TORONTO – While the new BlackBerry only landed in Canadian stores on Tuesday and there weren’t lineups around the block, telecom carriers were already clamouring to declare the smartphone a winner with no hard numbers to back it up.

Expectations are set high for the BlackBerry to be a hit out of the gate, and executives at both the smartphone maker and the telecom carriers took no chances as they crafted a bombastic debut for the device.

Still, gleaning any certainty from what happened is nearly impossible.

In downtown Toronto, a flurry of activity unfolded at a Rogers store where the company paired its chief executive Nadir Mohamed with BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins for a photo opportunity before 24 specially-invited customers picked up their preordered phones for the cameras.

The duo then headed across the city to talk about the future of telecom to a Bay Street audience at the Empire Club of Canada.

Elsewhere, fellow wireless carrier Bell proclaimed that preorders for the new phone broke its previous records for BlackBerry presales.

“We’re seeing intense interest today — sales are quite robust,” spokesman Albert Lee said in an email.

But the company couldn’t provide sales data for either the new phones or the previous models sold years ago. The secrecy around Bell’s sales claims was for “competitive reasons,” Lee said.

At Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Mohamed said that “thousands have registered for the device” through the telecom company’s website, though he did not provide any specific figures.

Telus added: “We have seen a very positive response from our customers,” while declining to provide figures.

Anecdotes from the U.K., where the phone launched last week, suggest the new BlackBerry is selling at a steady pace. Some stores have reported running out of the device, though it’s unclear how many units the locations had received before their inventory dried up.

“It doesn’t really tell us much,” said Carl Howe, vice-president of consumer research at Yankee Group. “But I’m sure BlackBerry was cautious in how they stocked things.”

The smoke and mirrors approach around a product launch has become almost expected by the cynical consumer, but it can also prove critical to a product’s success and part of the marketing effort.

Howe suggests that in the case of the BlackBerry, it’s necessary.

“They are undoubtedly worried and they don’t want to create a bad first impression,” said Howe.

“I think it’s smart … I think it’s exactly what they should be doing.

“Everybody is watching.”

BlackBerry, once the dominant smartphone, is competing in a technology world that has undergone massive change over the past few years, and not just in its hardware.

If a product doesn’t blow the doors off early, then it’s often considered a dud, especially with the Apple factor, which sets the bar of success at almost unattainable massive lineups and wildly enthusiastic customers.

BlackBerry was burned in 2011 when it failed to reach Apple’s sales standard with the PlayBook tablet, a product that was fumbled at its launch and has never recovered.

Despite several hits to the BlackBerry brand, including two major delays of this phone model, the Rogers event in Toronto proved there are still many BlackBerry loyals.

“Twelve years with the same company and I haven’t switched,” said Joseph Santos, who works as an IT manager in Toronto.

“Being the head of an IT department, there was a lot of pressure to go to an Android phone. I kind of fought them off. This is my last stand here.”

The new BlackBerry is expected to sell for around $150 on a three-year contract. Koodo is selling it without a contract for $550.

Katie Strong, a resident of Innisfil, Ont., drove about an hour to be at the Toronto launch event.

“I still have the Bold 9900 — I love it,” she said.

“I’m going to keep it, just as a backup, I guess. It’s a big thing to go to the new one, but I thought I’d try it.”

The new BlackBerry is also enticing converts like Duc Thach, a Gravenhurst, Ont. resident who has spent years on an iPhone.

“I like it because they’re Canadian,” he said, noting he did a lot of research before buying.

“Between the iOS (the iPhone operating system) and Android, they look kind of stale now.”

Heins called it a “big day for BlackBerry.”

“We’ve come a long way, we’ve built a whole new platform with the BlackBerry 10, not just a new smartphone,” he said at the Rogers store event.

While he’s disappointed the BlackBerry is not yet available in the U.S., Heins said its debut stateside next month will likely be helped by the earlier Canadian launch.

“Canada will be raving about the BlackBerry Z10 and consequently will influence the U.S. market,” he said.

Heins said the BlackBerry’s launch into the United States, the company’s biggest customer base by far, is coming later because of the extensive testing required by the U.S. carriers and the regulatory process.

Later Tuesday, he told a crowd of business executives at the Empire Club that for the past three weeks, he’s used the device along with BlackBerry’s tablet, Playbook, instead of a laptop.

“I really wanted to test it out myself so I abandoned my laptop,” Heins said.

“I handed it back to IT, I said, ‘Here it is guys, you do whatever you want to do. I want to live in the mobile computing space myself.'”

Meanwhile, fans of the phone’s physical keyboard will have to wait a while longer — the new keypad version of the device won’t launch until sometime in April.

While the physical keyboard has long been an essential and beloved tool of so-called CrackBerry addicts, the move to release the touchscreen first was signalled by the company last spring.

The stock has been volatile in the wake of the launch of the new BlackBerry 10 product lineup.

Part of the issue was profit-taking following a huge run-up on anticipation about the new product. But availability has become an issue as U.S. customers won’t be able to get the BlackBerry Z10 until March, a month later than in Canada.

Shares of the company were up again Tuesday in Toronto, gaining six per cent or 95 cents to close at $15.94.