This week marked a rather significant milestone and a rather huge thump within Silicon Valley and global equity markets.  The globe’s richest and most profitable company along with the most highly recognized supply chain delivered a huge if not somewhat expected disappointment. Note your calendars for reference, as this week; Apple did indeed report the company’s first quarterly sales drop in 13 years.

The growth streak has temporarily paused and the question is now what comes next.

The financial numbers are somewhat ugly by Apple standards- second fiscal quarter revenues declined 13 percent while profitability fell over 22 percent.  Then again, how many companies would envy a quarter that resulted in over $50 billion in sales and over 10 billion in net income?

Revenues across global regions were consistently down- a 10 percent reduction for Americas; a 5 percent reduction in Europe; a 26 percent reduction in the all-important Greater China region. Once more, Apple has issued lower sales forecasts for the current quarter. The impact of a strong U.S. dollar was somewhat a factor in global revenues with Apple indicating that revenue declines would have narrowed by 4 percentage points without such an impact.

For the past year, Apple’s shares have declined 20 percent and according to a commentary by The Wall Street Journal: “The decline erased more than $46 billion of the company’s market capitalization, more than the total value of Caterpillar Inc. or Netflix Inc.”

The unit volume picture was concerning- All important iPhone sales volume was reported as 51.2 million, down 16 percent from year earlier period. The firm’s iPad sales volumes declined 19 percent, continuing in a two-year long sales slump despite efforts to boost sales and a strategic alliance with IBM for more iPad focused business applications. Supply Chain Matters highlighted a number of ongoing published reports emanating from supplier information leaks indicating that Apple’s S&OP team has been consistently reducing iPhone production volumes since the beginning of the year. While inventories did increase, the situation would have likely been a lot worse since Apple had plans at one time to support an 80 million iPhone sales rate. Apple CEO Tim Cook indicated that the company plans to reduce inventories by $2 billion because of what he describes as the current challenging global economy. Gross margin for the current quarter is forecasted to be in a range of 37.5 to 38 percent, again below margin rates in the 40 percent range in prior years.

One bright spot was the introduction of the lower cost Apple iPhone SE that started shipping at the end of March. Apple CEO Tim Cook described current demand for this model as exceeding current supply, but too late to make any difference in second quarter performance.

The obvious question that reverberates across financial networks is when Apple, if ever will, return to growth.  Some would point to the need for an acquisition, some point to the need for the next “cool” product, perhaps electric cars or televisions.

Within the supply chain umbrella, one can anticipate a number of ongoing challenges.

Apple’s product design and product management teams are now under enormous pressure to develop the next successful groundbreaking product. The all-important design completion milestone date is mid-summer, since the global supply chain needs time to build supply and production to meet the traditional September new product announcement period and the critical October-December holiday sales period. Apple’s product design culture has always shown a tendency to push design changes to the very last minute.

Another reality is how long Apple can continue to support a premium price and margin point given an overall slump in global smartphone sales.  Emerging consumer regions where sales growth continues to exist are battlegrounds for price vs. performance, with lower price winning the majority of the time. If the iPhone SE turns out to be a sales volume success, it will have to be supported by a lower-cost supply chain channel.

Apple’s global direct materials procurement teams must continue to practice active supplier management since many of Apple’s suppliers have pinned their own financial performance outcomes on the large output volumes expected from Apple. When Apple sneezes, suppliers tend to catch pneumonia. Challenges will manifest themselves at annual supply contract reviews when volume expectations are clarified. With Apple practicing active segmentation, dual sourcing and key commodity risk mitigation, the role of supplier sourcing management should be very active.

Finally, Apple S&OP team must continue to be the arbitrator between sales and marketing teams who live in a hyped atmosphere of ever optimistic sales growth, a financial community now razor focused on margins and profitability goals, and supply chain operational teams that has not previously found themselves under an overt cost control looking glass.

A final open question is what if Apple elects to execute a large or complex acquisition. Perhaps an existing electric car or up and coming consumer electronics company?

There’s been an evitable thud in Cupertino, and the coming months will indicate whether this is indeed a temporary setback, or another turnaround milestone for the legacy and history of Apple.

Stay tuned.

Bob Ferrari

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