I recently wandered into a Best Buy Mobile store for the first time and had an experience that sparked a thought about Apple (AAPL). I wanted to take a look at the selection of phones Best Buy Mobile was offering and talk to a sales representative about which phones he or she would recommend. During my discussion with the sales person, I learned that she was planning to switch from the iPhone to a competitor's phone. Naturally, I asked her why. After all, judging by a lot of what I read and hear from iPhone aficionados, the idea of owning any other phone seems borderline heretical. The woman's reasoning had to do with something that had yet to cross my mind regarding iPhones: the "cool" factor.
The Best Buy Mobile employee's reasoning was quite simple. The iPhone no longer seemed as cool to her as it once did; practically everyone she knows has one, and so she wants to try something different. She did not have anything bad to say about the iPhone. In her mind, it is simply time for something new. Of course, this is just one anecdote and does not mean the same opinion is or will become widespread. But it did get me thinking about the fact that investors focused solely on Apple's incredibly positive near-term fundamentals and whether the latest Apple device has this or that functionality might be forgetting to think about intangibles such as the perception of "coolness" among mobile phone users.
Given Apple's incredible dominance, it would not surprise me if some investors simply refuse to even consider the idea that consumers might one day venture elsewhere for phones or tablets. That same type of thinking may have even crossed the minds of Nokia (NOK) and Research In Motion (RIMM) investors during those companies' heydays.
But even if consumers do one day decide a phone other than the iPhone is worth their while, there is good news for Apple and its competitors as well as for AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ). As The Wall Street Journal recently explained in its article, "Cellphones Are Eating the Family Budget," the trend among Americans is to sacrifice spending in other parts of their lives to ensure they can pay their cell phone bills. Cell phones, including smartphones, appear to have become a non-discretionary item for some people. According to The Wall Street Journal article mentioned above, which cited data from the Labor Department, in 2011, Americans spent $116 more a year on telephone services than they did in 2007. Total household expenditures, however, increased by only $67 during that time frame. In other words, cell phone bills are helping to mask weak consumer spending in other parts of the economy.
Nowadays, technology seems to be advancing at such a rapid speed that it is hard to know what will be novel and cool in a few years. It may very well be an Apple product, but it could also just as easily not be. If you are a buy-and-forget type of investor, you have to build this into your thinking, no matter how difficult it may be to quantify. It may not change whether you purchase Apple's stock, but perhaps it will change your allocation to the stock. After all, if there is an intangible, difficult-to-quantify risk to a business, you may decide it is more prudent to allocate fewer dollars to the investment than you otherwise would if that risk didn't exist.
Also, as Apple's stock becomes a hotel for hedge funds and makes up approximately 20% of the Nasdaq 100 (QQQ), it becomes a bigger risk to the market than people realize. Investors should therefore be willing to consider all possibilities regarding risks to Apple's business. This includes the "cool" factor. Although, with quantitative easing being in vogue, I suppose if all the hedge fund managers owning Apple decided to try to squeeze through the narrow exit door at the same time, the Fed could always launch a round of iQE and start purchasing Apple stock.
Disclosure: I am long T.