The Value of Smartphones

on August 15, 2018
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Over the past few weeks, I have been asked a lot whether the prices of smartphones will continue to increase and if such an increase is justified. The success of the iPhone X took those who said people would never pay $1,000 for a phone by surprise. The iPhone X also gave hope to smartphone vendors that, while sales might be capping there is an opportunity to grow average selling price and possibly profits. Yet, the success of the iPhone X must be considered with some caution. Not everybody is prepared to pay that kind of money for a phone, and, even more importantly, not every brand can charge as much.

The Bill of Materials is growing

It should not come as a surprise that the cost of making phones is rising. Smartphones have come to offer as much as a PC does, sometimes even more. Storage, screen quality, more sensors, bigger batteries, premium materials, cameras, and a lot more software. While some of the technologies are well established, so their cost has come down, others are cutting edge and add a fair chunk to the bottom line. Think, for instance, at the different biometric solutions from iris scanning to fingerprint readers.

Let’s look at the two trend setters in the market to see what has been happening over the past year. According to the teardown analysis conducted by IHS Markit, Apple’s total cost to make the iPhone 8 Plus rose to $295.44, $17.78 higher than that of the iPhone 7 Plus. IHS Markit also estimated that the iPhone 8 bill of materials is $247.51, or $9.57 higher than the Phone 7 at the time of release. The Samsung Galaxy S9+ (64GB) carries a bill of materials (BOM) cost of $375.80, much higher than for previous versions of the company’s smartphones. The preliminary estimated total is $43.00 higher than costs for the Galaxy S8+. It is too early for a tear down of the Samsung Note 9 and we know nothing about the iPhone X successor but we know the 64 gigabytes iPhone X model carries a BOM of $370.25 and betting on a higher BOM wouldn’t be a bad idea.  

The Return on Investment is High

We understand now why the cost of the phones at the high-end of the spectrum is going up. But why are consumers prepared to pay those rising prices?   The answer is in the return users see in the phone they buy.

Smartphones have become a must-have for most. They have replaced other consumers electronics such as MP3 players, digital cameras, video cameras, portable navigation devices as well as some other things like watches, alarms, and wallets. We use them throughout the day, every day, whether we are at home, commuting, at school or at the office. Our dependence has grown so much that we have started to talk about addiction. Whether you are addicted or not, there is no question that a lot of value is given to this thing we carry in our pockets.

Adding to the practical side of what the phone does for us there is a more irrational value we see in these devices. The pictures we store, and for some even the music, offer a deep emotional connection to the piece of hardware. While your computer can store the same things, the phone has the huge advantage of being that thing in your pocket you always pull out, much like you used to do with those pictures in your wallet. Plus as much as your phone is the same as everybody else you feel you made it yours through your pictures, your apps…You now even start to feel that your phone knows you!

No Sticker Shock

The smartphone market is not that different from the car market where the price spectrum is more and more polarized. The higher end is getting more expensive while the lower end is getting cheaper and more reliable.

Moving from contracts to installment plans helped consumer appreciate that not all phones cost $199. But even then, consumers do not have to face the full price of a phone in one go. The biggest increase they see is on the initial payment which includes tax but that percentage on a $100 increase is negligible.

Buyers could object to the price more on principle. It is really, the idea of spending $1000 that seems ridiculous to some. This is precisely where the weight one puts on the usefulness of the device and that emotional connection I mentioned will determine if you are a “you must be kidding me” or a “where do I sign” buyer.

The Power of a Brand

There is also a final component that plays a big role at the high-end and that is brand. The brand is what turns the device into a status symbol, something some consumers are prepared to pay more for. And I am not talking about the technology, the design, the quality that goes into the devices made by these brands. I literally mean the name, the logo.

In the smartphone world, this is true for Apple and Samsung and possibly Google. Consumers see these brands as leaders and are willing to pay more for their products. Other brands, like Huawei or Xiaomi, while getting recognition for their technology advancements or design have not quite earned the right to grow their price tags as much.

How far prices can continue to grow is hard to say, but I do not see this formula of rational plus irrational value and brand change much over the next five years.