Apple Watch Pricing Strategy Thoughts

There has been speculation that the price of the 18K gold Apple Watches may be several thousands of dollars higher than the stainless steel versions. John Gruber has written a blog post on how he came to this guess. John Gruber guesses that the 18K Apple Watch Edition will start from $4,999.

To arrive at this number, John Gruber analysed the prices of 18K gold Rolex watches. He found that they are priced at over $30,000 and so in fact, the $4,999 figure that he arrives at is much much lower that luxury Swiss watches. I think he was trying to find a sweet spot between luxury Swiss watches and the price of current Apple products.

This is definitely one pricing strategy that Apple may follow.

However, pricing is a very very difficult topic. There is no single correct pricing strategy. In fact, as you can see on Wikipedia, there are many pricing strategies that are in use (and this article only lists the general ones). John Gruber’s analysis is absolutely correct, but only if Apple’s pricing strategy is “Market-oriented pricing”.

Let’s see what would happen if Apple chose to use a different pricing strategy.

Cost-based pricing

This is the practice of basing the price on the cost-of-goods. In the Wikipedia article, strategies like Absorption pricing and Contribution margin-based pricing are cost-based price strategies.

If Apple were to follow this strategy, the price differential of a stainless steel/sapphire glass Apple Watch and a 18K gold/sapphire glass Apple Watch Edition would be roughly equal to the cost differential of stainless steel and 18K gold.

What would this price be? What is the cost different between stainless steel and 18K gold?

To understand this, we need to know how much 18K gold is contained in an Apple Watch. We don’t know the answer to this, but I found an article on the Internet that measured how much gold was used in an 18K gold Rolex watch. This will give us a rough idea of how much gold may be used in an Apple Watch Edition.

“How Much Gold Is Really In A Rolex Watch?”

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This article tears down a Men’s Rolex President (photo) to find how much gold is used. The results are as follows;

Case ring weights 18.5 grams. Contains 13.875 grams of pure gold. It has a value of $178.43.

Case back weighs 7.21 grams. Contains 5.41 grams of pure gold. It has a value of $69.57.

Bezel weighs 5.30 grams. Contains 3.98 grams of pure gold. It has a value of $51.18.

The bracelet weighs 68.85 grams. Contains 51.64 grams of pure gold. It has the most value at $664.09.

The total value of the pure 24kt. gold in this Rolex President is $963.27.

Since the Apple Watch Edition does not come with a solid gold bracelet, the total value of the pure 24kt. gold in watch would be

$963.27 - $664.09 = $299.18

That’s actually not very much.

Furthermore, the case back of the Apple Watch Edition does not have much gold because the heart rate sensor takes up a lot of space. For the Apple Watch Edition, I would estimate something like $230.

Gold prices have risen very significantly (2-3 times) since this teardown article was written in 2006 (probably due to the excessive quantitative easing by the Fed in response to the global financial crisis), so we might actually be looking at a total value of something like $500 – $1,000.

This suggests that if Apple follows a pure cost-based pricing strategy, the price difference between an Apple Watch (stainless steel) and an Apple Watch Edition (18K gold) will only be about $1,000 at maximum.

Developers

In PCs, smartphones and the Apple Watch, developers play a very important role. This is likely to strongly affect any pricing decisions that Apple will make.

To understand this, take a look at the video of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at All Things D5 from (15:52). They talk about their collaboration on the original Macintosh on which, not only Apple but Microsoft had bet their future on. Bill Gates mentions that when Steve first came, he had mentioned that the price of the Mac would be much lower than it eventually turned out to be at $2,495. In fact, Steve Jobs fought for the Mac to be prices $500 lower, but lost out to John Sculley.

Why would Steve aim for low price? Because a low price would mean more units would sell, which would mean that Microsoft and other software developers would be able to sell more software and make more money. This would invite more and more developers to write software for the Mac and create a vibrant and healthy ecosystem.

Coming back to the Apple Watch, Apple has to entice developers to write software for it. They have to create a vibrant ecosystem around the watch. This means that they need to sell a lot of units. Maybe not as many as iPhones or iPads, but at least enough to make developers excited about it.

Keep in mind that while Apple may rake in a lot of money from a luxury watch, app developers will not be able to charge a premium for wealthy customers. A billionaire and a person on the street both pay the same few dollars for the very same app.

A luxury watch that will cost more than $4,999 and will only sell to a relatively small number of wealthy customers will not contribute much to the ecosystem.

Tentative conclusion

My guess is that Apple will price the Apple Watch Edition 18K gold models using a cost-based pricing strategy. That is to say that the price difference between the stainless steel model and the 18K gold model will be between $500 to $1,000 at current raw gold prices.

The basis of my guess is that Apple does not have to employ the same pricing strategy as the Swiss luxury watch makers. In fact, doing so will harm the developer ecosystem that Apple wants to build up.

The priority for Apple should not be about maximizing short-term profit. It should be about selling large numbers of watches and building the ecosystem for long-term gain. And I’m sure that Apple is fully aware of this because of the near-fatal mistakes during the Sculley, Gassee years.

Update

  • I reduced the cost analysis for the Apple Watch Edition after realizing that the back case doesn’t use gold.
  • I have written some further thoughts on this topic.