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Apple still won’t give India what it really wants

A delegate speaks on the phone as he attends the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) India Leadership Forum in Mumbai
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
The cheaper, the better.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Apple’s newest iPhones have just cost too much to be a big hit in India, and the company hopes reviving a discontinued model can expand its minuscule market share in Asia’s third-largest economy.

Local brands like Micromax and Lava sell dirt-cheap handsets, and the Cupertino, California, giant faces additional competition from Chinese players like Oppo, Vivo, and Gionee, who’ve made a mark in the mid-price range. When Apple tried to reduce retail prices by selling cheaper, refurbished iPhones, the Indian government shelved those efforts, saying it would add to the country’s plethora of e-waste. Apple’s market share has continued to slip, and is now down to a dismal 2%.

Apple has finally decided to slash prices in India. It has resurrected a 32GB version of its iPhone 6—ditched when the iPhone 7 launched at the end of 2016—with a new retail price of Rs28,999 ($435), CNET reported. When the model was first launched in 2014, the 16GB variant cost Rs53,500 ($802).

That’s a big cut. But will it be enough lure more buyers in a country where the average smartphone costs $158?

The cost of high pricing

Apple looks to India, one of the fastest growing smartphone markets in the world, as its next frontier for growth.

“Apple’s growth in China has slowed, and short of launching the next iPhone, there is little Apple can do to change that,” Avi Greengart, research director of consumer platforms and devices at GlobalData, told Quartz. “India, however, is pure opportunity for Apple.”

In the past year, it has made headway. After chief executive Tim Cook attempted to woo Indians by visiting temples and attending Bollywood parties, Apple struck a notable partnership with Reliance Jio, one of the fastest growing mobile operators. Apple also secured permission to set up a distribution center on the outskirts of Mumbai. Just last month, the company solidified plans to start manufacturing in the tech hub of Bangalore.

Affordability is a high priority, even for consumers buying luxury goods like smartphones. India has a much lower per capita income, $1,598, than China’s $8,028. And for Apple, reducing prices can conflict with the brand’s aspirational value. But without a cut, India’s price-sensitive market will be hard to convince. The return of the iPhone 6 could be a middle ground.

“Apple has two main problems in India—distribution and pricing,” Greengart says. “Relaunching the older iPhone 6 at a lower price could really help Apple make progress as an aspirational device, without diluting the premium it needs to maintain on current products.”

Apple also introduced the 32GB version of the iPhone 6 in markets like Taiwan and China, aiming to lure less wealthy consumers. The iPhone is not available through the company’s own physical or online stores. Instead, third-party vendors and telcos are selling it. In India, it’s retailing on Amazon.

Competitors have upped their game

Cutting down prices is a promising tactic in India, but only if it makes the product more competitive.

“The new generations of consumers aren’t as enamored with the Apple brand as were the early adapters,” Carnegie Mellon University fellow Vivek Wadhwa told Quartz. “And Indians won’t pay this kind of money for old models. If they can afford to spend Rs30,000, they will want the latest and greatest.”

Most Indians now own Chinese phones that offer bigger screens and an improved user interface, while supporting multiple regional Indian languages. The Chinese brands have also been investing in marketing campaigns and expanding their retail presence. Guangdong-based Oppo, for example, recently set up 35,000 sales points and 180 service centers across India, Bloomberg reported

Apple’s services are still light-weight competitors in India. Apple Maps is laden with glitches, thanks to insufficient testing and erroneous data. When Apple Music launched in India in 2015, it couldn’t compete with the multitude of cheaper local music streaming apps like Saavn, Gaana, and Hungaama. And  with its pricy package, it only caters to the more affluent buyer.

“[Apple] needs to develop a new set of (cheaper) products that are geared towards Indian users and have these in multiple languages,” says Wadhwa. ”I give Apple zero chances of success—unless it wakes up and figures out the Indian market.”

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