Misreading Apple’s Supply Chain and iPhone XR

Yesterday, Carolina Milanesi and I were on a panel at the UBS global technology summit, and the focus of our panel was Apple. As would be expected, the audience consisted of a large number of institutional investors who had some interest in Apple at a financial level. Given the timing of some recent news from some of Apple supply chain worries, this was a hot topic. I tweeted a slightly sarcastic tweet that got quite a bit of engagement on Twitter about the recycling of worrying supply chain headlines and how this always reminds us of how little people understand of Apple’s supply chain. Even Apple CEO Tim Cook has continually tried to remind investors that trying to gain insight into Apple’s supply chain for signals is a fool’s errand. I’d like to briefly explain why this is the case and how that relates to the worry of iPhone XR demand.

Apple’s Fluid Supply Chain
Apple’s supply chain scale is truly unprecedented. However, it has not been without its hiccups and missteps as Apple has learned to scale the worlds most popular smartphone to meet consumer demand. Apple has faced low-yields with suppliers on innovative components, run into manufacturing process challenges because of the intricate process of some of their hardware designs, and in some quarters these issues meant a supply shortage in the face of overwhelming demand. Even as late as last year with the iPhone X we saw Apple face challenges as they transition to a new hardware design and technology process.

But, through all these years, Apple has learned how to build one of the most fluid supply chains in the history of manufacturing. Most companies do not face the kind of manufacturing challenges Apple does because most companies do not ship technology innovation at the scale that Apple does. This makes most companies supply chain a bit easier to manage. But when I say Apple’s manufacturing is fluid, what I mean is that they can respond to waves of demand and other market changes in real-time. If demand goes up, they can scale up quickly to meet that demand and if it slows they can scale down. The primary strategy for this has everything to do with why we get a range of supplier reports where one quarter an Apple supplier has a huge quarter, and in the same quarter, another supplier will suggest a decline.

Apple tends to buy, in bulk, many components from suppliers well in advance. Apple has a history of doing this and its relative to specific components they feel they need to have on hand vs. those they know they can get quickly or easily at a moments notice from a supplier. We often don’t know how far in advance Apple may place a bulk order. For example, when a supplier reports a revision downward in quarterly revenue, it is rarely for the current quarter, even though investors will use that to say a product is not selling well right now, and that is entirely not the case. What it means is Apple locked up supply likely for next six months, and they aren’t placing another order with that supplier this quarter yet. The supplier itself likely got very little read from Apple ahead of time about how many products they need overall, so the supplier itself may have overestimated how much product Apple would need from it and thus guided their next quarter earnings artificially. I’ve personally had to help some key component suppliers with this issue and often educate them on how Apple works since they operate quite differently than most their other clients.

So when we look at revenue concerns from key display or camera components which report a smaller than expected order the two key points to remember is they likely overestimated themselves will little insight from Apple as to what orders could be coming. Second, we are not sure how much inventory Apple has already secured. So a current revenue downgrade from a supplier could mean Apple has all they need for six months or more already secured.

This fluidity, and the massive variation in who, what, and how much, bulk ordering Apple does is something only they know, and it is a key reason it is very hard to use supply chain supplier commentary to gauge a current quarters iPhone sales prospect.

Relating to iPhone XR
Most of the commentary has also been focused on what is being flaunted as poor iPhone XR sales. Again, Apple may have all the components they need on hand to scale up or down iPhone XR unit sales for the next six months or longer, but a critical point I think is missed is that the current December quarter should never have been expected to be a big iPhone XR sales quarter as a part of the iPhone mix.

Most of the buyers who purchase in the December quarter are the type of consumers who want the latest and greatest and therefore they tend to buy the higher end more premium iPhone. This is why Apple’s iPhone ASP is always highest in the December quarter. While the iPhone XR will appeal to some buyers this holiday, and Apple is advertising it with that hope in mind, the real buyer for the iPhone XR may not emerge until the March and June quarters. If I had to bet, that is the quarter when we could see the iPhone XR become a more significant part of the mix than the December quarter and early parts of the March quarter.

Now, while I do not think the iPhone XR is anything like the iPhone 5c was, if we agree they appeal to a similar type of buyer (one who acknowledges they don’t need the latest and greatest/highest-end product) then we should expect the second half of the year to be more in iPhone XR’s favor. That was the trend with the iPhone 5c as it sold much better second half of its sales year than the first half.

The other point is there is concern over the iPhone XR in China, but like the 5c, China is not and never was the core market where that product will do best. Chinese consumers want the best for a variety of reasons, and we should only expect the Xs and Xs Max to be the bulk of volume in China.

Overall, it is simply way too early in the quarter for anyone to anticipate how well any of Apple’s latest products are doing. There are certainly trending winds, but we need at least six months of market data to understand how the market is reacting really. All that to say, take pretty much every sales or supplier concern report with a large grain of salt.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

5 thoughts on “Misreading Apple’s Supply Chain and iPhone XR”

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