Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Theories of Harm potentially applicable to Apple’s Distribution Tactics

with 2 comments


On TV last week, I looked dumb reciting the obvious: in the EU, the law forbids RPM as an outright unlawful practice. So if it was proven that Apple is RPMing, then there could be trouble down the road.

Some voices blarred amongst some competition lawyers’ friends, as I had proferred accusation on Apple (I have not).

So I made some research in the WE. Upon inquiry, it seems that Apple’s tactics are more subtle. If I understand correctly, Apple tells its independent retailers that consumers can take a price up to a certain level (let’s say 500€), but no more. In turn, Apple sets in the contract a recommended maximum price of 500€. And then, it sells them the product at a price slighlty below this (let’s say 495€). On top of this, Apple would allegedly charge lower prices to its own retail distribution network.

On face value, such maximum prices are per se lawful. But the question is whether this can be akin to de facto RPM, given that with the high input price, Apple in essence gives little choice to its independent retailers but to apply the maximum price. Further evidence that this constitutes hidden RPM would stem from the fact  that Apple accords much lower prices to its own retail operations  (incl. over the Internet).

But there’s something puzzling with this theory of harm: why on earth would Apple seek to harm independent retailers? Possible options are (1) Apple engages into de facto RPM in countries where it does not have large retail operations of its own, so as to yield as much profit as possible; (2) Apple is reluctant to sell through independent retailers in countries where it has its own retail operations, but anticipates that with control over a “must store” product, it would be forced to supply.

In option 1, we are looking at a theory of anticompetitive exploitation, amenable to an infringement under the RPM framework, pursuant to 101 TFEU or to unfair pricing rules pursuant to 102 TFEU (if Apple is proven dominant).

In option 2, we are looking at a theory of anticompetitive exclusion, amenable to an infringement under article 102 TFEU (if Apple again is proven dominant), under the refusal to supply/price discrimination/margin squeeze doctrines.

A related puzzling thing is about retailers’ incentives to buy a product on which they make so little margin. But again, one may consider that they have incentives to do so at any rate, because this brings traffic towards their shop. And after all, each distributor is likely to believe that it is better to be the one to make the sale, rather than to leave it to another distributor.

All this, of course, should be backed by facts. The Commission is apparently looking into this, if I believe the latest news.

Written by Nicolas Petit

25 March 2013 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Judging from the NYT article it appears what the Commission is looking into is not related to RPM, be it hidden or not:

    Apple’s contract differs with every carrier that sells the iPhone. Such sales accounted for 56 percent of Apple’s $55 billion in revenue last quarter. In most cases, Apple sets a quota for how many iPhones the carrier needs to sell over a set period of time, usually three years. If it does not agree to the quotas, it does not receive the iPhone. If quotas are not met, the carrier is obligated to pay Apple for unsold devices, according to one person who negotiated with Apple while at a European carrier.

    Sounds like a possible theory of harm would be related to single branding, refusal to supply and, possibly, discrimination.


    25 March 2013 at 4:48 pm

  2. Focus may likely be on whether Apples is attempting to foreclose competing devices:

    “…some of Apple’s competitors complain that the big purchases Apple requires from carriers strongly pressure them to devote most of their marketing budgets to the iPhone, leaving little money to promote competing devices, said an executive at one of Apple’s rivals, who declined to be named to avoid jeopardizing carrier relationships.”

    The iPhone is a must-carry item and it is sold like (golden) bread. While Apple can have very good reasons to keep distribution under tight control, the requirement related to advert spending may look a bit dodgy.


    26 March 2013 at 4:38 pm

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