How does Apple keep its prices so regular?

It's not just the iron will of Tim Cook…

Why do you never see Apple products discounted? Everyone knows to shop around if you're buying consumer electronics. It's a market where there are often vast discounts over the recommended retail price, and where buying direct from the manufacturer, if its possible at all, is a way to guarantee you get ripped-off.

Except, it seems, Apple. The company maintains a cast-iron grip over its prices, and a huge quantity of its sales are direct. How does it do it? Macworld's Marco Tabini explains the two interconnected methods it uses.

Firstly, the company only offers a tiny wholesale discount to third-party resellers:

The actual numbers are a closely guarded secret, protected by confidentiality agreements between Cupertino and its resellers, but the difference probably amounts to only a few percentage points off the official price that you find at Apple’s own stores.

That small discount means that most stores can't offer much money off without losing money on every Apple product sold — but it also lowers the motivation for them to do anything with Apple at all. After all, if they make 30-55 per cent per generic Windows laptop sold, they are likely to push them much harder to customers, and may decide there's not even any point in stocking Apple at all.

That's where the second method comes in. Apple offers "substantial monetary incentives to retails who advertise its products at or above a certain price, the "minimum advertised price". Tabini writes:

This arrangement enables retailers to make more money per sale, but it prevents them from offering customers significant discounts, resulting in the nearly homogeneous Apple pricing we are used to.

It also explains why, particularly in the US, where they are more common anyway, mail-in rebates are so common on Apple gear. It allows the retailer to "advertise" the laptop at the minimum price, while still undercutting Apple on the final sale price.

All of that doesn't prevent companies offering discounts on Apple products where they can, though. Both PC World and Amazon UK offer substantial discounts on a couple of Apple laptops, while the company itself offers a lot of under-advertised, but potentially large, discounts for certain groups (not just students, but some professions too). Maybe the old myth is worth busting, and its time to shop around for that company as much as anyone else.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.