Apple, Xiaomi squeeze smartphone mid-market as sales plateau

Consumer demand

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The global smartphone market has finally gone ex-growth as China’s slowdown continues.  In turn, the market is starting to polarise – with Apple pushing further up-market whilst Chinese brands such as Xiaomi focus on volume.  Samsung’s middle market positioning looks increasingly under threat:

  • The chart shows Q1 sales for Samsung, Apple, the 3 top Chinese brands and Others (Strategy Analytics data)
  • The 3 Chinese brands (Huawei, OPPO, Xiaomi) have collectively taken top position with 27% of the market
  • Samsung has slipped into 2nd place with 23%, whilst Apple is at 15%
  • Total volume at 345m was down 2% versus 2017 and back at 2015 levels, as Strategy Analytics note:

“Samsung is holding steady in its core markets of North America, Western Europe and South Korea, but the company is facing intense competitive pressure in China and India from rivals such as Xiaomi. Apple volume grew 3%.

“Huawei grew 14% despite headwinds in North America (whilst) Xiaomi doubled marketshare versus 2017 as its growth soared 125%. Xiaomi is expanding like wildfire across Asia, particularly in India.  OPPO has been hit hard by Xiaomi’s rapid retail expansion and Huawei’s much-improved Android device portfolio.

CHINA’S PREVIOUSLY HOT MARKET HAS GONE COLD

The key to Q1’s decline was the collapse in China’s market, where sales fell 19% to 91m, and were back at 2013 levels according to Canalys data.  And as the chart shows, the 4 main players are consolidating their position:

  • Huawei grew market share to 24% from 18%; OPPO grew from 17% to 19%
  • Vivo grew from 15% to 17%, whilst Xiaomi jumped 8% to 13%.  And as Canalys note:

“There is a sense of fatigue in the market. The level of competition has forced every vendor to imitate the others’ product portfolios and go-to-market strategies.  But the costs of marketing and channel management in a country as big as China are huge, and only vendors that have reached a certain size can cope.”

Xiaomi’s growth is due to its focus on the sub-RMB1000 level ($160).  Its recent launch of cheap up-market phones will put more pressure on competitors and further drive consolidation in the market.

SMARTPHONE MARKET’S POLARISATION CONFIRMS THE GLOBAL TREND

It is, of course, no accident that China’s downturn has ended global market growth.  Its vast stimulus programme after 2008’s financial crisis meant that it became the growth engine for the global economy.  But now President Xi’s resolve to make “deleveraging” one of his “3 tough challenges” is changing the rules of the game, again:

  • As the chart shows, the Boomer-led SuperCycle created a new and highly profitable mid-market
  • Before then, companies had competed on the basis of price or perceived value
  • But from the mid-1980s onwards, the mid-market became the most profitable sector
  • Now, with the Boomers retiring and stimulus programmes ended, we are going back to basics again
  • The vastly different strategies of Apple and Xiaomi highlight the new world ahead

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, has deliberately turned his back on the mid-market, positioning the new iPhone X at the $1000 price point, where it has consistently outsold the cheaper iPhone 8 and iPhone 8Plus. In turn, this led profits to jump 25%.  As a result, Apple is the clear leader in the high-end sector with its relatively niche products and high margins. As the Financial Times reports:

“iPhone unit sales of 52m were up only 3% by volume but the product’s revenues jumped 14%, as the iPhone X drove its average selling price up by $73 compared with a year ago, to $728.

Apple’s performance highlighted the new strategy:

  • Its China revenues rose 21% and the iPhone X was the top selling smartphone
  • It also benefits from the growth of the used-phone market, now around 10% of the total
  • Around a quarter of US consumers sold their old smartphone when upgrading last year
  • iPhones will likely hold their value well, making them more valuable when resold

Similarly, Xiaomi’s success in China highlighted the opportunity in the mass-market.  Its market share jumped to 13% as it aimed to make a net profit margin of just 5% on its $100 – $160 phones.

INVESTORS NEED TO WATCH FOR BANKRUPTCIES AS CONSOLIDATION REVS UP
The free money provided by the central banks since 2008 has had two key effects:

  • It has prolonged the reign of the mid-market as consumers have been able to borrow cheaply
  • It has allowed mid-market companies to borrow heavily and build up major debt

Now, both of these trends are reversing.  Consumer spending is increasingly being driven by income, rather than borrowing.  Companies are seeing interest rates rise on their debt: even worse, those who borrowed to take advantage of low US rates are seeing repayments rise as the US$ rises again.

Investors need to be very careful about where they place their bets for the future.  And companies need to check out their business partners’ strategies.  Falling volumes and higher interest/debt costs will lead to a wave of bankruptcies.

Most analysts are ignoring the changes underway in China.  As with subprime, they will soon argue that “nobody could have seen this coming”.  But in reality, there are always warning signs.  The global smartphone market has been the great success story of the stimulus era.  Its paradigm shift is highlighting the likely “surprises” that lie ahead.

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