SAN FRANCISCO/MUMBAI (Reuters) - As China sales show signs of cooling, Apple Inc(AAPL.O) is touting India's appetite for iPhones, betting that rising wages and an expanding middle class will pull consumers away from the cheap alternatives that currently dominate the market.
In an earnings call in which the company reported meagre iPhone growth and forecast its first revenue drop in 13 years, the Indian market stood out as a rare bright spot for Apple.
Sales of the company's flagship smartphone climbed 76 percent in India from the year-ago quarter, Apple Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri said.
According to data compiled by Counterpoint Technology Research, Apple sold an estimated 800,000 iPhones in India in the fourth-quarter, its highest ever amount but one that is a fraction of the 28 million smartphones sold during that period.
Growth in India is a tantalizing prospect as Apple grapples with the economic downturn in China, its second largest market. While revenue in Greater China rose 14 percent in the last quarter, Apple is beginning to see a shift in the economy, particularly in Hong Kong, Maestri told Reuters in an interview.
But with nearly 70 percent of smartphones selling for less than $150 in India, Apple's high-end phones remain out of reach of most consumers. The basic iPhone 6S sells at just under $700 in India, or nearly half the average annual wage.
"In many ways India is very similar to what China was a few years ago, but the middle class here is still very small and it can be two to three years before Apple gets a similar level of success in India," said Counterpoint Technology Research analyst Tarun Pathak.
Apple CEO Tim Cook struck a more optimistic note, saying the company was "increasingly putting more energy" into India, citing a largely youthful population with rising disposable income as more people join the workforce.
With faster 4G coverage expanding, Apple has already asked Indian government for a license to set up its own retail stores just as the market seems to be turning in its favour.
As in China, Apple products are a coveted status symbol in India, a market that analysts say is likely to overtake the United States next year to become the world's second largest smartphone market.
"The love for the iPhone is there," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, a consumer research firm.
Editing by Stephen R. Trousdale and Miral Fahmy