Judging by the latest IDC phone sales report, Apple has now found the point where iPhone prices rises meet customer resistance.
The last two product cycles have seen Apple raise iPhone prices faster than the rate of inflation.
A few anomalies like the troublesome Samsung Galaxy Fold aside, Apple prices have also gone up faster than phones from rival manufacturers. The gap between Apple’s most expensive iPhone and the most expensive mainstream options from the likes of Samsung and Huawei is higher than ever before.
In New Zealand the Apple iPhone XS Max with 512Gb of storage costs NZ$2800. Huawei’s P30 Pro, with 256GB of storage costs NZ$1500. That’s a fraction over half the price of the top iPhone.
Samsung’s Galaxy S10 with 512Gb of storage is $2100. Three-quarters the price of the iPhone XS Max.
You can argue Apple’s phones are better than Huawei’s or Samsung’s. Although many readers would dispute that. You can also argue that an iPhone has greater value than an Android for people who have invested in iOS.
Even so, it can’t be an accident that Apple’s sales have dropped both in absolute terms and relative to the market since those price rises.
That fall is not trivial. IDC’s latest phone sales report shows iPhone unit numbers dropped 30 percent in a year. The report says: “The iPhone struggled to win over consumers in most major markets as competitors continue to eat away at Apple’s market share.”
Apple’s iPhone revenues dropped 17 percent.
IDC says Apple is now firmly in third place behind Samsung and Huawei. The report says the total phone market dropped 6.6 percent year on year. Apple accounted for two-thirds of that drop.
There is evidence much of this drop was in China.
We can’t know for sure there is a direct link between Apple’s recent rounds of faster than inflation price rises and the drop in sales. But it is a plausible working thesis.
For a while Apple’s faster than inflation price rises meant that the company’s phone revenue remained buoyant as unit numbers fell. In effect Apple users were trading up to more ritzy phones. If that was a strategy, it only worked in the short-term.
One aspect of this is that although Apple’s iPhones are more expensive, they contain more technology and more functionality. This might justify the higher price in some cases.
In recent years Apple’s gross margin has been around the 38 percent mark. That sounds huge, but it’s not unusual in the technology sector. Software companies tend to do better.
The most recent result shows the gross margin has fallen from 38.3 percent a year ago to 37.6b percent. In other words, those higher phone prices are not a simple case of Apple cashing in.
Samsung and Huawei both face enormous problems. The Galaxy Fold is a potential disaster for Samsung. Meanwhile Huawei is at the centre of a nasty political row. At some point that could affect the company’s handset sales, at least outside of China.
Apple faces a difficult year. If the folding phones from Samsung and Huawei turn out hits, Apple will be on the back foot in technology terms. There’s also the 5G problem. Apple committed to buying Intel 5G chips. It turns out these don’t work, so Apple has turned back to Qualcomm.
For all these reasons, observers are going to judge the 2019 iPhone launch more carefully than any Apple launch over the past three to five years. It might also pay to take a close look at what Apple does with prices later this year. Another big rise would ring alarm bells.