Can Apple Ever Walk Back on iPhone Pricing?

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Another day, another analyst cutting iPhone estimates due to the lofty price tag of iPhone X.

In the months since Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) newest flagship launched, there have been signs that iPhone X isn't selling as well as hoped. The company's official earnings release showed unit sales coming in below expectations, as did guidance for the March quarter. OLED display supplier Samsung is reportedly cutting production due to soft iPhone X demand, and Piper Jaffray earlier this month released the results of a survey that showed 31% of iPhone owners aren't upgrading because iPhone X is "too expensive."

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Another analyst chimes in

CNBC reports that Nomura Instinet has sent out a research note to investors this week, standing by a neutral rating on Apple stock while reducing estimates for fiscal 2018 iPhone sales. Analyst Jeffrey Kvaal believes that there are "further signs of trouble at the high end of the market" due to pricing and suggests that "market elasticity is falling." Kvaal now expects Apple to ship 221 million total iPhone units this fiscal year, down from a prior estimate of 226 million units. The Street is currently modeling for Apple to ship 224 million iPhones in fiscal 2018.

"We do not believe it is coincidence that the highest end of the product portfolio, the X, is the model that is flagging," Kvaal writes. Smartphone prices are hitting an "upper limit," in the analyst's view.

If all of the evidence suggests that Apple was a bit over-ambitious in pricing iPhone X, which the company spent months attempting to justify, then Apple may have to face a strategically difficult question: Can the company ever walk back on iPhone pricing?

Between a rock and a hard place

Now that Apple has pushed further upmarket by pricing iPhone X at $999 to $1,150, it would be extremely challenging to bring the next flagship's price back down. There's almost no way to get the messaging right.

Reducing the next flagship's price would be an implicit acknowledgment that iPhone X was priced too high and that the decision could have been a mistake. While doing so could help reduce the chances that the next flagship suffers the same fate, it would also suggest to iPhone X buyers that perhaps they paid too much. On the other hand, keeping the next flagship's starting price in the ballpark of $999 risks hurting demand. Apple finds itself caught between two unappealing alternatives.

Some companies are able to occasionally justify price reductions by saying they are delivering cost savings back to consumers, but that page appears to be missing out of Apple's marketing playbook. Most of the time, Apple prefers to quietly pocket cost savings in order to boost its margins, which is good for investors at the expense of consumers.

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Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.