Gray markets, PPP and the iPhone in China

Via Felix Salmon, I found this fantastic piece by “Bento” on the take-up of the iPhone in China.

Some background:  When Apple launched the iPhone in China, early sales numbers were disappointing.

Some background to the background:  Under Chinese law, WIFI-enabled phones are illegal, so Apple has to cripple the iPhones they sell in China.

From Bento:

The Chinese have long had access to iPhones. They are for sale at stalls in every cybermall and market in every Chinese city, and come in two varieties: The most expensive ones (at around 6000 RMB in Shanghai for a 16GB 3GS, or 880 USD, depending on your haggling skills) come directly from Hong Kong, where the factory-unlocked model is available from the Apple store for around 4800 RMB. That’s a nice arbitrage play by the stall owner, and everyone is happy. The cheaper model, at around 5000 RMB for a 16GB 3GS, was originally bought locked in the US or Europe, and has been unlocked by the stall owner’s hacker-genius cousin using 3rd-party software. This kind of iPhone is cheaper, because you are on your own when it comes to upgrades and iTunes compatibility.

The distribution model is extensive and robust, and in fact most Chinese buy their mobile phones from stalls like this. There are no iPhone shortages, as prices fluctuate to meet demand. The received wisdom is that around 2 million iPhones are in the Chinese wild; I’ve personally seen a good many of them here in Shanghai, where they are much in evidence among the eliterati. Still, this is a minuscule portion of the 700 million odd phones in use in China, of which a small but growing portion is smartphones.

What can Apple do to grow the number of iPhones on mainland China? Short of lowering prices in Hong Kong (not going to happen) it can do two things: Increase awareness of the iPhone via advertising, and bring the benefits of a Chinese-language App Store to Chinese iPhone owners.

To do either of these, you sort of need to sell the product locally first, though. Apple can’t really go round putting up banners in Chinese tier-3 cities urging consumers to head for the local iPhone aftermarket.
[…]
Apple … is not revenue-sharing with China Unicom, the local vendor, but selling the iPhones outright to them. It is up to China Unicom to flog them in China.

And that’s what China Unicom is trying to do. China Unicom stores all have iPhone banners up; I’ve passed several China Unicom road shows stopping by Shanghai extolling the iPhone. The iPhone is being talked about widely. But so is the fact that the China Unicom iPhone is crippled — the Chinese are sophisticated consumers; forget this at your own peril.

The upshot: anecdotal reports tell of aftermarket prices increasing for Hong Kong iPhones these past few weeks, as demand increased. Clearly, the advertising is working, even if China Unicom’s sales of wifiless iPhones are anaemic.

Arbitrage is clearly still happening — buy for 4800 RMB in Hong Kong, sell for 6000 RMB in Shanghai; that’s a 25% markup and well above any reasonable estimate of transportation costs — so Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) doesn’t even hold within the “one” country, but this is a great example of gray market imports.

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