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Let’s start with the question in the title: Do people need the new Apple Polishing Cloth? The answer actually is simple: No, they don’t. The Polishing Cloth, even if made of a microfiber blend that effectively cleans screens without risk of scratching them, does not claim to do a substantially better job than other microfiber cloths. And for most consumers, the tail of a shirt or even a paper towel would be sufficient.

But despite these logical arguments against buying the Polishing Cloth, since making it available for individual sale in mid-October 2021, Apple has confronted massive demand. The cloths are on back-order until at least January, but people have joined waitlists to receive one or a few, once they become available. For this privilege, they are paying $19—more than twice the price of comparable microfiber cloths that are readily and widely available in the market.

So what explains this behavior? Why are consumers willing to pay more to wait to receive a cloth that has no discernible advantages over other options? Part of the reason is the inducement created by the brand itself. Apple’s strong reputation for innovation and close connection to many users’ self-image means that for some people, anything Apple introduces is something they will consider buying.

Furthermore, due to its strong brand positioning, Apple can charge high prices for its products, which creates a sort of spending draft: If a consumer already is shelling out thousands of dollars for a laptop, plus several hundred more for an iPhone or an Apple Watch, what is $19 more to spend to keep the screens on those devices clean and easy to read? Seemingly, Apple learned of this motive by tracking people’s prior behaviors. That is, it first introduced the Polishing Cloth as an add-on, provided for free anytime consumers purchased its $6000 display monitor. But those consumers asked to purchase more, leading it to identify a niche market that quickly spread to include other segments of customers too.

Yet another rationale for this seemingly irrational behavior is people’s personal attitudes toward new products. One YouTube influencer initially scoffed at the idea of buying such a cloth, but then realized that he also was worrying about being the only person without this accessory—that is, fear of missing out or FOMO. Rather than risk this uncomfortable state, he bought two of the square cloths while he still could, then featured them prominently in his video feeds. 

Thus, even though the new product is not a technology-enabled gadget or smart device, like most of Apple’s offerings, it still reflects the brand’s core meaning. It is something novel, expensive, and cool, with a high price that people seem happily willing to pay.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is the Apple Polishing Cloth a luxury product? Justify your answer.
  2. Would you consider buying an Apple Polishing Cloth, once they become available again? Why or why not? What does your answer say about your own consumption behavior?

Source: Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Apple’s Most Back-Ordered New Product Is Not What You Expect,” The New York Times, October 29, 2021