The Curious State of Apple Product Pricing

As Apple pushes deeper into luxury brand territory, the company is making its products more accessible through lower pricing. At $159, Apple is underpricing AirPods. The same can be said for Apple Watch, priced at $269. In just ten years, we have moved from the "Apple Tax" days, when Apple was accused of pricing products artificially high, to Apple products being priced below the competition. Apple is using its balance sheet and scale to grab new users, and in the process, redefine luxury. 

Underpricing AirPods

After using AirPods for the past three months, one takeaway relates to pricing. It is clear that Apple is underpricing AirPods. While this statement may sound outlandish considering that a pair of EarPods is included in every iPhone box, AirPods are not just any pair of headphones. The combination of accelerometers, optical sensors, Apple's new W1 chip, and a well-designed charging case, position AirPods as Apple's second wearables product. AirPods are computers for your ears. This distinction does a better job at framing the device's surprisingly low $159 price. 

 
 

Contrary to the conclusions found in most headphone buying guides, AirPods should not be compared to lower-priced, wired headphones. These buying guides not only lean on sound quality to unfairly shortchange truly wireless headphones, but also misidentify why consumers want to buy wireless headphones in the first place. AirPods' primary value proposition isn't found with sound quality but rather with not having any wires. Accordingly, the product should be compared to other truly wireless headphones. 

It is very difficult to find a pair of wireless headphones priced lower than AirPods. In the run-up to Apple unveiling AirPods this past September, the wireless headphone market consisted of the following players: 

  • Kanoa: $300
  • Bragi Dash: $299
  • Erato Apollo 7: $289
  • Skybuds: $279
  • Earin: $249
  • Motorola VerveOnes+: $249
  • Samsung Gear IconX: $199
  • Bragi Headphone: $149 

Given the preceding list, a strong case could have been made for Apple to price its new wireless headphones at $249, or even $299. The fact that Samsung priced its Gear IconX at $199 seemed to suggest a sub-$200 retail price for AirPods was unlikely. Instead, Apple sent shockwaves pulsing through the market by pricing AirPods at only $159. The action instantly removed all available oxygen from the wireless headphone space. The idea of Apple coming out with a new product that would underprice nearly every other competitor was unimaginable ten years ago. 

Many wireless headphone companies have been forced to cut pricing in an attempt to better compete with AirPods. Even after price cuts, competitors are still unable to come close to AirPods pricing. While some of these competing headphones include additional capabilities and functionality, much of this benefit is overshadowed by the lack of Apple's W1 chip. When it comes to contributing to the premium experience found with AirPods, the W1 chip is near the top of the list.

Underpricing Apple Watch

A similar pricing dynamic is found with Apple Watch. After cutting the entry-level price $50 to $299 in March 2016, Apple unveiled a new Apple Watch pricing strategy last September. Apple upgraded the first generation Apple Watch device with a new dual-core processor, the same processor found in the higher-priced Apple Watch Series 2 models. In addition, Apple gave the Watch a new name, Apple Watch Series 1, and a $30 price cut to $269.

 
 

At $269, Apple Watch Series 1 is one of lowest-priced smartwatches worth buying in the marketplace. Attractive pricing was one key factor driving record Apple Watch sales this past holiday quarter. In fact, even the Apple Watch Series 2, at $349, is one of the lowest-priced smartwatches in its class:

  • Fossil Fenix 5: $599
  • Garmin Forerunner 630: $399
  • Michael Kors Access: $350
  • Samsung Gear S3: $349
  • Fossil Q Founder: $275

Apple's aggressive pricing strategy has also gone a long way in shrinking the price gap between Apple Watch and dedicated health and fitness trackers. There is now only a $70 difference between an Apple Watch Series 1 and Fitbit Blaze. 

Three Pricing Theories

There are three theories to explain Apple's AirPods and Apple Watch pricing strategy. 

A) iPhone as Hub. Instead of making a profit on Apple Watch and AirPods, Apple is underpricing the devices in an effort to boost iPhone sales. The logic is that since Apple Watch and AirPods are being positioned as iPhone accessories, Apple views the devices as tools to keep consumers attached to their iPhones. Apple compensates for the lack of Apple Watch and AirPods profit by selling high-margin iPhones and Services. 

B) Manufacturing Scale. This is the most straightforward theory. Apple has simply gotten better at making products at a lower cost. With a sizable production ramp (millions of units), Apple management can use scale and its existing supply chain to quickly bring down component and manufacturing costs for a new breed of personal tech gadgets. 

C) Consumer Segmentation. Management is using product pricing to grow Apple's user base. On one end, management cuts entry-level pricing in an effort to make products more accessible. However, management then pushes at the other end of the pricing spectrum with premium SKUs targeting a different part of the user base. The higher-priced SKUs help boost Apple's overall margin profile. 

History

On the surface, each of the three preceding theories seem to contain some logic. The iPhone is not only Apple's best-selling product, but also the most effective tool for growing the user base. At the same time, Apple has seen much progress in keeping component costs contained across its product line.

However, upon further examination, there is a serious flaw found with Theory A (besides the fact that Apple is moving beyond the iPhone as Hub product strategy). AirPods and Apple Watch pricing doesn't reflect a new strategy designed to juice iPhone sales. Instead, Apple has actually been traveling down this pricing path for years. Apple's decision to unveil the initial iPad at $499 in 2010, and then come out with a $329 iPad mini just two years later, marked a sea change in the way Apple approached product pricing. 

In the mid-1990s, Apple made a series of strategic mistakes related to the Mac. Instead of trying to grow market share, management chased profit. Apple introduced a variety of high-priced Macs targeting existing Mac users. Apple was having difficulty targeting new users in the face of the strengthening Windows empire. Apple was doubling down on niche instead of chasing mass market. 

Apple took a completely different strategy with iPad. With iPad, Apple cared much more about grabbing market share. This attitude was born from motivation to not repeat Apple's dark days from the 1990s. Up until last year, there was thought to be one major caveat to Apple's market share ambition. Apple was interested in initially grabbing share in the premium segment of the market and then gradually working its way down market. There is evidence to suggest this attitude is now changing a bit as Apple is selling wearables.

Apple's Pricing Strategy

AirPods and Apple Watch pricing demonstrate how Apple is looking to own not only the premium segment of the wearables market, but rather the entire market. As Apple runs deeper into luxury, the company is reducing entry-level pricing. This is a curious development as one assumes the opposite would have occurred - Apple would keep prices high to maintain a certain level of exclusivity or scarcity. Instead, Apple is redefining the concept of luxury in order to sell mass-market products. 

Consider Apple's approach to Apple Watch pricing. With $269 and $369 Apple Watch options, Apple is very competitive with nearly every smartwatch. However, at the other end of the product line with Apple Watch Hermès and Edition starting at $1,149 and $1,249 respectively, Apple is selling different materials, and a different kind of experience, at much higher prices. Apple is segmenting the product line to appeal to a wider variety of users. 

With Apple's entry-level Apple Watch pricing, management isn't necessarily targeting a premium segment of the smartwatch market, but rather its going after the entire market. AirPods represents an even more extreme case study of this mass-market appeal. 

Apple is able to sell product at low prices by utilizing its strong balance sheet and powerful supply chain to secure very attractive component orders. In addition, the company's efforts to own its own silicon and other core technologies are starting to pay dividends from both a performance and pricing perspective. Apple's growing vertical integration is allowing the company to run with lower pricing yet still maintain historically high margins. The growing legal battle between Apple and Qualcomm isn't just about Apple being unhappy with Qualcomm's business model. Rather, it's about Apple wanting to eventually get into the baseband processor business. (A full primer related to the lawsuit is available for members here.) This will come in handy when selling a cellular Apple Watch down the road as Apple can create its own system on a chip (SOC) containing its own AX processors, GPU, and an LTE modem chip. 

Lower-priced Apple products result in increased sales, which leads to Apple's ability to place even larger component orders. Apple will soon be on pace to sell 20M Apple Watches per year. For AirPods, annual unit sales will likely be even higher. These sales numbers provide Apple flexibility to reduce the pricing of older models even further. Meanwhile, competitors are unable to get a foot in the door. We saw a version of this dynamic unfold in the tablet market during the early 2010s. The same thing is now taking place in the smartwatch market, and it could even expand to the wireless headphone industry. 

Things to Monitor

Given Apple's revised pricing strategy, there are a few developments worth monitoring: 

  1. Apple Watch. A $199 Apple Watch is inevitable at this point. On the other end of the pricing spectrum, new partnerships with luxury brands similar to Hermès seem likely. 
  2. AirPods. It is not unreasonable for Apple to eventually have an entire AirPods platform comprised of lower-priced models with certain features and components as well as higher-end options targeting a more premium segment of the market. Interestingly, Apple started towards the low end and may work its way up market as additional functionality is added. 
  3. iPhone. Stronger than expected demand for the higher-priced iPhone 7 Plus tells us that higher-priced iPhones are coming. Higher prices will be justified as iPhones morph from being computers that fit in one’s pocket into personal augmented reality navigators utilizing the most capable cameras to ever fit in a pocket. Meanwhile, Apple continues to reduce entry-level iPhone pricing. The most recent example is Apple bringing back the iPhone 6 in a few select markets and pricing it a bit lower than iPhone SE. 
  4. iPad. Given the iPad's position within Apple's broader product line, the product category is following the iPhone in terms of higher-priced models. On the other end, there may not be much room left for Apple to lower iPad's entry-level pricing to significantly less than $269. 

Redefining Luxury

Apple's pricing strategy is ultimately about bringing new users into the Apple ecosystem. While the iPhone remains the most effective tool for accomplishing this, Apple wearables will increasingly represent another new user tool at management's disposal. It may be difficult to believe, but AirPods likely represent the first Apple product for more than a few people. Additional value will flow to companies selling multiple wearables products to the same user. As it currently stands, the average Apple user owns more than one Apple product. This trend will only intensify as time goes on when considering Apple Watch and AirPods. 

The trickiest aspect of Apple's pricing strategy is running with lower prices while at the same time, becoming more of a luxury brand. In essence, Apple is redefining luxury. While other luxury brands have utilized lower-priced items to serve as brand entry points, Apple is taking the practice to an entirely new level by pricing products below the competition. Apple is making luxury much more accessible with the idea that low-priced gadgets can create an experience just as luxurious as that of premium gadgets. It's going to be difficult for other consumer tech companies to play in this game. 

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