iPhone 4S: The Buy Lines Are Still Long Outside Apple Stores

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Last night I went shopping with my wife for treadmills at the mall down the street from our condo. At some point, I convinced her I needed to swing by the GameStop at the other end of the mall to put money down on a copy of Batman: Arkham City. Between us and the GameStop: an Apple Store, wedged between a Pearle Vision and American apparel company The Limited (also, conveniently, right across from a “Mobile Life AT&T” kiosk).

And around 8:00 p.m. as we passed by: a longish line setup outside the Apple store with those little ribbon-connected poles they use to keep people from swarming. I couldn’t believe it, to the extent that I stopped and asked someone what the line was for. (The iPad 3, right?)

“The iPhone 4S, what else?” said the person, kindly leaving off a well-earned “you idiot.”

(MORE: Hot Potato: Apple’s iPhone 4S Does Record 4 Million Sales)

Can you believe it? Do, because the iPhone 4S is still in such high demand that Apple’s actually implemented a “reservation-only” pickup policy. I assume the folks in line last night had them (reservations), and I imagine anyone turning up spontaneously, without calling ahead, was sent packing with a membership in Club Disappointed.

“iPhone 4S is available in store by reservation only,” says Apple’s website. “Reserve yours after 9:00 p.m. tonight [Apple’s emphasis] for pickup tomorrow. When you come in, you’ll choose a carrier and plan, and we’ll get your iPhone up and running before you leave the store.”

Poke around and you’ll find anecdotal reports from sites doing spot checks indicating this carrier or that one’s selling the lion’s share. Sprint was the early (obvious) sales taker based on pent up demand, but it sounds like Verizon and AT&T models (in 16 GB, 32 GB and 64GB sizes) are continuing to sell out at retailers across the country, too.

Apple revealed just yesterday that it sold a record four million iPhone 4S’s since the mobile went on sale last Friday. That’s over twice as many as the original iPhone 4 managed—a then-record 1.7 million during its summer 2010 opening sales salvo—and at least one million more than the most optimistic analysts predicted the 4S would do during its launch weekend.

It’s turning into this year’s Tickle-Me-Elmo: Place an order online, and if you aren’t lucky enough to score one of the dwindling store-stock models, Apple’s saying you’ll wait anywhere from a week to a month to lay hands on one. For those unlucky enough to score the 30-plus wait-window, that could mean saying “pass the iPhone 4S” along with “the stuffing” and “the cranberry sauce.”

What’s the deal? Didn’t Apple realize demand was this high?

Apple “can only build so many at a time,” says Gartner analyst Van Baker (via USA Today), adding: “Did they realize they would double the volume of iPhone 4? Probably not.”

MORE: At Least One Million People Want Apple’s iPhone 4S

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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