Apple finally starts selling directly to customers in the world’s fastest-growing smartphone market

September 23, 2020, 7:12 AM UTC

On Wednesday, Apple opened its first online store in India, marking the tech giant’s most direct bid yet to grab a foothold in a market where it has long struggled to make headway.

Apple’s India website says it will offer services like online shopping and tech support, localized payment options, and contact-free delivery of Apple products.

The virtual-store opening marks the first time Indian consumers can directly purchase the company’s iPhones, computers, and other products without having to rely on third-party retailers. In 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi relaxed rules that required foreign retailers like Apple to meet a 30% made-in-India threshold to sell directly to Indian consumers via online and physical stores. The rule had forced Apple to sell its wares through Indian phone stores and other domestic retail chains.

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At the time of the rollback, Apple praised India’s decision to ease the rules, and in February CEO Tim Cook credited the Trump administration with intervening on Apple’s behalf in the matter.

India is an especially attractive market to technology firms given its rapid adoption of mobile phones. It’s been the world’s fastest-growing smartphone market since 2016, and earlier this year it surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s second largest smartphone market behind China.

The timing of Apple’s direct-to-consumer entry in India comes right before India’s Hindu festival season, which is an especially lucrative time for mobile phone companies. Apple’s timing is also advantageous in that it coincides with India’s feud with China.

An ongoing border dispute has pushed China-India relations to their lowest point in decades. Because of the conflict, India has imposed restrictions and bans on Chinese technology companies, and political support has grown for boycotts of goods made in China, including Chinese devices that compete with the iPhone.

“[India’s] flare-up with China makes India incredibly attractive for Apple,” Abishur Prakash, a technology and geopolitical analyst at consulting firm Center for Innovating the Future, told Fortune earlier this month. “As Indian consumers seek alternatives [to Chinese goods], Apple can offer its lineup of products and services.”

Since 2017, Apple has moved more of its assembly operations from China to India, which helps Apple avoid another Indian regulation that places tariffs on technology imports.

But even with expanded marketing and manufacturing capabilities in India, Apple faces an uphill battle in selling its products to Indian consumers.

The iPhone holds only a 2% market share in a smartphone scene that Chinese firms like Xiaomi, Vivo, and OPPO continue to dominate. Even the cheaper models of Apple’s phones and computers remain prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of Indian consumers.

Apple is hoping that its new online store will boost the company’s performance in the country.

“We’re proud to be expanding in India and want to do all we can to support our customers and their communities,” Deirdre O’Brien, a senior vice president at Apple, said in a statement. “By bringing the Apple Store online to India, we are offering our customers the very best of Apple at this important time.”

The company also says the online store is just the first step in unleashing its powerful brand in India.

In February, Cook said Apple planned to open its first retail store in India in 2021. The company declined to comment on Fortune’s inquiry about the plans and hasn’t publicly indicated whether the pandemic, which is hitting India especially hard, will delay the opening of physical retail outlets.

Cook explained in February that Apple’s future online and physical stores are vital to Apple’s success in India.

“We like to do things our way,” Cook said.

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