A year after leaning on its high-price iPhone X to ignite sales of its best-selling product line,
may need the lower-priced successor—the XR—to perform the same trick.
The iPhone XR, which is the cheapest of the three new models Apple introduced this year, hits stores Friday with a starting price of $749. Apple could rely on the XR for unit sales growth because of the reticence of some consumers to pay $1,000 or more for the XS and XS Max it released in September.
The XS and XS Max, which start at $999 and $1,099, respectively, have so far posted sales comparable to last year’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus in the same period, according to estimates by two market-research firms.
In the U.S., Apple’s largest market, the iPhone XS and XS Max accounted for 16% of all iPhone sales in the September quarter, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, which surveyed 500 customers who purchased Apple products during the period. The iPhone8 and 8 Plus registered the same percentage of sales during the comparable year-earlier period.
Apple declined to comment.
The results raise the stakes for the XR, which analysts expect to be Apple’s best-selling device over the next year. To prevent iPhone shipments from slipping, the company needs the XR to spur sales of iPhones much as its higher-priced predecessor, the X, did a year ago.
Apple adopted a staggered release schedule last year that initially damped demand for the 8 and 8 Plus, released in September 2017 at a starting price of $699 and $799, respectively, as many consumers waited for the $999 iPhone X’s release in November. After the X hit stores, customers evaluated all three devices, and iPhone sales accelerated, analysts said.
The 8 and 8 Plus combined for 67.2 million units, while the X accounted for 59.8 million units during the nine months ended in June, according to Strategy Analytics, a market research firm.
This year, Apple prioritized the release of the pricier XS and XS Max, releasing the 5.8-inch and 6.5-inch devices in September with higher-end features like a sharper, organic-LED display and dual-lens cameras. It withheld the XR, which features a 6.1-inch traditional LCD screen and a single camera, until this week.
While the move helped drive sales of those pricier devices, which should lift total iPhone revenue from a year ago, demand hasn’t been strong enough to lift unit sales, said Mike Levin, co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, a market research firm. “The XR has to soak up a lot of demand—that’s what will define success,” he added.
As of Oct. 21, a month after they started shipping, the iPhone XS and XS Max together account for an estimated 0.18% of iPhones in use world-wide, according to market research by Localytics, which analyzes apps across 2.7 billion devices and did a controlled analysis of models being used. That was slightly less than the 0.78% share of the 8 and 8 Plus last year and a little over one-tenth of the share claimed by its predecessors in 2016.
The new $750 iPhone XR is so much like the $1,000 iPhone XS that it’s hard to see why you’d pay more. WSJ’s Joanna Stern reviews the key differences.
Apple is betting the XR’s lower price tag and new colors such as yellow and coral will make it a hit with customers. The device features the same high-speed processors and facial-recognition technology as its pricier siblings and has been praised by technology reviewers, who described it as the best value Apple has offered in recent years.
David Sedillo, a 28-year-old Los Angeles-area resident, said the XR’s features were compelling enough for him to preorder a black model last Friday. He opted for that device over the XS for the same reason he chose an iPhone 8 Plus last year over the X: price.
“I can definitely live with the lower-resolution screen and single camera if it means I can save money and have more battery life,” Mr. Sedillo said.
The combination of bigger screens and a lower price should make the devices more appealing to Chinese consumers, who depend on smartphones to shop online, pay for goods, play games or stream video and have balked at the hefty price tag of Apple’s recent models.
Apple has spent $5.1 million since Oct. 9 on TV advertising showcasing the new phone, according to iSpotTV, an ad-tracking firm. It spent an additional $17.5 million on two ads promoting the XS and XS Max.
But analysts say the features, reviews and marketing push of the XR have yet to translate into strong demand.
Apple started preorders for the XR last Friday. Shipment delays, a closely watched barometer of demand, reached 10 days in the U.S. and China following the first weekend, according to Nomura Group’s global equity-research unit, comparable to the delay for last year’s iPhone 8 Plus.
During a call with analysts Tuesday,
said upgrade rates, which account for new iPhones and other devices sold, hit a record low in the September quarter. The company signaled it may decline again in the December quarter.
“That suggests Apple’s going to have a difficult time meaningfully growing the market,” said Jeff Kvaal, an analyst at Nomura.
Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com