Apple Inc. will allow Chinese consumers to buy its gadgets on credit, a move that could help boost its sales in the world's largest smartphone market by unit shipments, where it has lost share to cheaper brands.
Customers in China buying any product that costs more than Rmb300 ($48 U.S.) from Apple's online store may now apply to pay in up to 12 monthly instalments interest-free, the company said on its Chinese website.
The service, which is offered to holders of China Merchants Bank credit cards, allows payment in up to 24 instalments. Payment in 18 instalments carries a 6.5 per cent interest rate, and for 24 instalments an 8.5 per cent interest rate will be charged. The offer applies to purchases of up to Rmb30,000.
The new service will make Apple's devices more affordable as smartphone demand in China is increasingly driven by first-time buyers with lower incomes. The trend cost Apple some of its growth in the Chinese market last year and has enabled domestic brands that offer lower-priced handsets to grab market share from multinational rivals.
Chinese brands, led by Lenovo and including the likes of Huawei, ZTE, Coolpad and Gionee, accounted for more than half of smartphone sales in China last year for the first time, according to Gartner.
Apple dropped to sixth place by unit sales in the third quarter, according to Gartner and IDC figures. Analysts have blamed that on the fact that Apple, unlike peers such as Samsung, offers no mid-priced or low-end devices.
Despite media reports that the company might launch a cheaper iPhone this year priced as low as $100 (U.S.), executives have said Apple's future is not in low-priced devices. But the new credit facility could attract some Chinese buyers who would otherwise not purchase Apple's devices.
The financing service is not unique to China. Apple has similar arrangements in the U.S., Japan, Brazil, South Korea and Singapore. However, the Chinese version offers a lower applicable price and allows for longer repayment schedules than its U.S. equivalent, which is offered in co-operation with Barclays.
The credit facility is being offered just in time for the local launch on Friday of the 3G version of the iPad mini.
Since Tim Cook took over as chief executive, Apple has put more emphasis on China. Last week, Mr. Cook told Chinese media that he expected the country to "soon" overtake the US as Apple's largest market, and said the company would expand its presence on the mainland by adding many more to the eight stores it has there now.
Apple's revenue in Greater China - which includes the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan - increased 83 per cent to $22.8-billion in the fiscal year that ended in September 2012, slower than the previous year but still much faster than the 46 per cent growth registered in the US market.