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Here's why Apple's China situation is at 'code red,' and why it needs to take dramatic action to plug up a key weakness in the business (AAPL)

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Tim Cook China

  • Apple needs to cut the price of its iPhone XR in China by as much as 20%, Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a research note Monday.
  • The phone costs about $960 in the country, an example of Apple's "pricing hubris," he said.
  • The danger for the company is that iPhone customers there will buy cheaper phones from rivals instead of paying Apple's price, Ives said.
  • Apple needs to maintain its customer base to drive sales of its services, he said.

When it comes to China, Apple might be facing a "code red" situation and may need to respond to it equally dramatically with something it rarely does — cutting prices on recently launched products.

For Apple to successfully transform itself into a services company, as CEO Tim Cook has been talking about, it needs to maintain its base of customers, Dan Ives, an analyst who covers the company for Wedbush, said in a new research note. But it risks losing a significant chunk of its customer base in China because it priced its new iPhone XR too high, he said.

To right its ship, Apple is going to need to "significantly" cut the price of the XR in coming months — perhaps by as much as 20%, Ives said.

"Apple needs to make sure that over the next few quarters they do not lose any current iPhone customers, and thus speaks to the more significant price reductions on the way in China, in our opinion," Ives said. "This is a smart and necessary strategy."

Apple representatives did not respond to an email seeking comment about Ives' report.

Read more: Hey Tim Cook, there's a simple solution to your iPhone sales problem

Some thought the XR would be a big hit

Apple introduced the XR last fall as a lower-cost alternative to its flagship XS models. It has many of the same features, but it has a less costly screen and a lower price. While the XS models start at $1,000, the XR starts at $750. When it launched, some observers expected the XR to be a breakout hit.

iPhone XRInstead, many consumers appear to be rejecting the XR as too costly. Apple has reportedly cut back on production of the XR repeatedly since it launched. Earlier this month, the company warned that its holiday-quarter sales would fall short of its forecasts and blamed weak iPhone sales, particularly in China.

Ives pointed a finger at the XR for that shortfall. There the device has a base price of RMB 6,499, which is about $960.

"As we have discussed with investors, it has been Apple's pricing hubris on iPhone XR that was the major factor in the company's December earnings debacle," said Ives, who remains a bull on Apple's stock, with an "outperform" rating and a $200 price target.

Many analysts, including Ives, believe that the future for Apple is in selling services to owners of its devices. The company's services segment has been one of its fastest-growing businesses in recent years and such offerings as Apple Music, iCloud storage, and the money Google pays Apple to be the default search engine for the iPhone. For its services segment to continue to grow, Apple will need to at least maintain its user base, Ives said.

Apple needs to sell iPhones to drive demand for its services

That's a chronic challenge. Smartphone owners tend to replace their devices every two to three years, and some use it as an opportunity to switch the kind of device they own from an iPhone to an Android device, or vice versa. Apple's customers have tended to be very loyal, but its pricing mistake for the XR could test those ties, particularly in China, Ives said.

Some 350 million iPhones are due to be replaced within the next year to 18 months, he said. Of those, about 60 to 70 million are owned by Chinese consumers, he said. The danger for Apple is that those customers, because of its high prices, don't wait longer to buy their next device, but they buy a cheaper device from a competitor instead. That's why it's crucial for the company to cut its prices, he said.

"If the installed base declines in China, Apple will face an uphill battle in the region for years," Ives said.

He suggested that Apple could boost sales of the XR by cutting the price to about RMB 5,200, or about $768. Reports out of China in recent days indicate that some retailers are already slashing their prices on the XR and other iPhone models.

The price cuts could worry already nervous investors, Ives acknowledged. Some may fret that Apple will take a further revenue hit from such reductions or that it would lose its image as a luxury brand. But such considerations aren't as important as maintaining its user base, he said. 

Cutting prices "is a smart and necessary strategy for Apple as this is an installed base story going forward," he said. The growth of its services business, he added, "will be driven off that premise for the next decade, with China a key ingredient in Apple's future recipe for success."

SEE ALSO: Apple's iPhone revenue is set to fall this year for just the second time ever

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Here's why Apple's China situation is at 'code red,' and why it needs to take dramatic action to plug up a key weakness in the business (AAPL)


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