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Apple revealed telling information about its customers with a throwaway line about batteries

Myles Udland
Markets Reporter

Apple (AAPL) shook markets on Thursday after the company’s surprising cut to its outlook for the fourth quarter delivered late Wednesday.

Shares of the company fell as much as 9% after its revenue guidance for the holiday quarter was cut sharply to $84 billion from a previous range of $89-$93 billion.

Apple CEO Tim Cook drew a direct line from struggles in the Chinese economy and Trump’s trade war to struggles in its business, writing in a letter to shareholders that, “While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China.”

And while Cook discussed challenges in China and the broader emerging market space at length, he also addressed a number of other struggles facing the company in the most recent quarter.

One of these stood out to us and others as particularly odd and particularly disappointing — battery replacements.

“While macroeconomic challenges in some markets were a key contributor to this trend, we believe there are other factors broadly impacting our iPhone performance,” Cook wrote, adding, “including consumers adapting to a world with fewer carrier subsidies, US dollar strength-related price increases, and some customers taking advantage of significantly reduced pricing for iPhone battery replacements.”

And it’s the last part of this sentence from Cook that should disappoint investors the most.

Close-up image of Apple iPhone 7 jet black color disassembled for repair and showing components inside on black background.

In 2018, Apple offered customers a new battery for a iPhones purchased in 2016 or earlier for just $29. The Washington Post advised readers to run, not walk, to get a new battery and extend the life of their current device. WaPo tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler said he had to join a “weeks-long waiting list” to get the battery on his iPhone replaced after the company slashed the price of this replacement battery by $50.

Demand for new iPhone batteries was clearly significant, and implies that demand for new iPhones was lukewarm. But the core bull thesis on Apple is not only a bet on increasing iPhone sales but also increasing stickiness with its services ecosystem. People replacing batteries to keep their iPhones working longer indicates a continued flow of dedicated Apple users that want to remain in the ecosystem.

A contented group of satisfied customers

Make no mistake — the biggest, most important, and undeniable piece of bad news from Apple is its view of the Chinese economy. Cook said that, “most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad.”

This is why shares of Apple’s Dow peers like Intel (INTC), Boeing (BA), and Caterpillar (CAT) were among the blue chip index’s biggest laggards alongside the iPhone maker on Thursday. Investors expressed concerns about China’s economic growth any way they could on Thursday.

But a limited-time promotion offering what amounts to an interim upgrade to an existing iPhone seems like a stretch to be listed as an excuse alongside a slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. And what should disappoint investors most after Apple’s news is that the battery promotion seems to show a clear change in the behavior of consumers buying iPhones.

No longer are consumers excited about the latest iPhone design or getting the highest resolution screen or camera possible. Recent editions of iPhone are great devices, but no longer enough on their own to motivate consumers that are seeing sticker prices well north of $700 per phone as carrier subsidies have gone by the wayside.

Now, a new battery an extra year or two of perfectly functional performance from an existing iPhone is enough to keep Apple customers happy. And it’s a sign that Apple customers are decreasingly a group of ravenous loyalists who will spend anything and wait in any line to get the latest piece of spellbinding hardware, but a contented group of satisfied customers who would just like their current phone to work a little bit better for a little bit longer.

Myles Udland is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MylesUdland