If the iPhone XR is selling so well, why is Apple messing with the price?

We have an Apple executive boasting that the iPhone XR was the "most popular iPhone each and every day since it became available," but at the same time we're seeing even more generous promotional trade-in deals. What's up?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

The data suggests that sales of this year's crop of new iPhones may not be as strong as Apple had hoped. Yesterday saw another big Apple supplier -- this time audio and voice signal processing chipmaker Cirrus Logic -- issue a revenue warning because of "recent weaknesses in the smartphone market." And rumors that sales are not what the Cupertino giant had been expecting have been coming thick and fast.

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The rumors that the iPhone XR wasn't selling well must have rattled Apple, because it prompted Greg Joswiak, Apple vice president of product marketing to tell ZDNet's sister site CNET that the iPhone XR had been Apple's "most popular iPhone each and every day since it became available."

At the same time, Apple kicked off a promotional trade-in deal that offered up to $300 off the price of a new iPhone in exchange for the old one.

So what's going on here?

Well, following Apple's decision to no longer report iPhone unit sales, investors, analysts, and pundits alike have taken this as an indication that Apple knows that sales are going to soften, and wants to divert attention away from unit sales and focus more on revenue and profits.

But it's also clear that Apple now feels the need to control the narrative by getting Joswiak to boast about how well the iPhone XR is doing (presumably to counter the reports that production of this model had been slashed by up to a third).

But analysts had expected the iPhone XR to be the best selling of the new crop of iPhones, given that it's the cheapest of the bunch. So telling us that it's been the most popular iPhone doesn't really mean that much. Doubly so when you consider that some analysts had expected sales of the iPhone XR to be close to that of the iPhone XS and XS Max combined. Based on this assumption, Apple could have cut production of the iPhone XR by a third and it would still be the most popular iPhone.

Also: Apple iPhone XR review: The best iPhone value in years CNET

Also note how Apple says it's the "most popular iPhone," and not something more hyperbolic such as "best-selling." Also note how Apple has stopped issuing weekend sales proclamations like it once did.

One thing's for sure, the iPhone no longer sells like it used to, because if it did, Apple would still be swaggering about it.

Third-party data sources, such as Mixpanel, also seem to be indicating that sales are weakening. Interestingly, Mixpanel's data does corroborate Apple's claim that the iPhone XR is the most popular model (although it is possible that data from some regions -- in particular, China -- are not well represented by this data).

​iPhone sales breakdown

iPhone sales breakdown


So what's the bottom line here?

It's comes down to the revenue. If revenue is good, then I expect the noise about the lack of unit sales to die down to a dull roar. But if revenue is down then it's hard to see a scenario where investors and analysts are sympathetic and benevolent to Apple.

iPhone XS and iPhone XR cheat sheets

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