iPhone 6 Plus boosts U.S. 'phablet' share, but the smaller iPhone 6 is what sells

Apple's larger iPhone 6 Plus grabbed 41% of all U.S. sales of smartphones with screens 5.5-in. and larger during a recent three-month stretch, even though it was available -- and only in short supply -- for just six weeks.

According to Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, which regularly polls consumers on a variety of topics, the 5.5-in. iPhone 6 Plus accounted for four-in-every-10 sales of so-called "phablets" in the three months that ended with October.

"That tells me that there were lots of users who were waiting for Apple to make a larger iPhone rather than buying a large Android phone, like the Samsung Note," said Carolina Milanesi, Comtech's U.S. chief of research, in an interview today.

The introduction of the iPhone 6 Plus was largely responsible for a significant jump in the percentage of 5.5-in. and larger smartphones sold in the three months, added Milanesi. This year, those bigger-screen devices captured 10% of total U.S. sales, five times the 2% of sales during the same stretch in 2013.

Even so, Milanesi said that the iPhone 6, the 4.7-in. smaller sibling, outsold the iPhone 6 Plus by more than three-to-one since their Sept. 19 on-sale roll-out. Her numbers were generally in line with others' who have noted similar sales splits.

"Remember, these results are somewhat skewed by the constrained supply," Milanesi cautioned, referring to the initial longer lag between ordering and shipping for the iPhone 6 Plus. As of Wednesday, however, those delays were three-to-five business days for all 16GB and 64GB configurations of both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and seven-to-ten for the 128GB devices.

During the August-October poll period, 33% of the iPhones sold were the iPhone 6, while 10% were the iPhone 6 Plus, said Milanesi. Last year's iPhone 5S and 5C accounted for 26% and 18%, respectively.

The steadfastness of the older models -- which combined to make up nearly half of all sales -- showed Milanesi that price matters, even to Apple's customers. "There are more options this year than last from an Apple perspective," she said, citing the two models at the high end. "But consumers don't have to buy at that high end for a good experience, and Apple needs to continue to have something at those lower price points to compete."

Apple started selling the iPhone 5S and 5C at reduced prices when it introduced the new devices, dropping the price of the former to $99 with a two-year contract and the latter to zero.

With more Americans shifting to non-contract mobile plans, it was important this year, and will be even more in the ones to come, that Apple have devices that cost less than the non-subsidized $649-$749 for entry-level iPhone 6 handsets.

"This begs the question of what you want to achieve going forward," Milanesi said of Apple. "Their original pricing of the iPhone 5C wasn't low enough to do what they wanted to achieve, so I think there's still room for Apple to finesse its offerings."

Although speculation has mounted that Apple will dump the plastic-cased iPhone 5C from its lineup, Milanesi thought that would be a mistake, and that Apple would be smart to retain not only its multi-tier approach but differentiate the lowest-priced iPhone from others with a unique look.

"The iPhone 5C is still a good proposition, especially as more flexible plans become more popular," said Milanesi, ticking off other reasons to retain the 5C or something similar, including its ability to draw in mid-tier Android users and appeal to younger buyers.

Not surprisingly, most of the iPhone sales in the August-October span were to Apple loyalists, with prior iPhone owners accounting for 85% of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus sales. Only 9% were deserters from Android.

That relatively few buyers came from the Android camp should not be a shock, said Milanesi, who added that the percentage of "churners" would increase with time because early stages of a new iPhone are typically dominated -- and seem to have been during this cycle, too -- by the most hardcore Apple customers.

Milanesi also pointed out that iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus buyers both cited screen size as their primary reason for choosing their device, with that factor representing 60% for the iPhone 6 and 58% for the iPhone 6 Plus in store exit polls.

"That tells me that the size of the iPhone 6 is big enough for a majority of people," Milanesi said.


Gregg Keizer

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