Huawei Ascend Mate 7. Picture: SUPPLIED
Huawei Ascend Mate 7. Picture: SUPPLIED

Singapore/Shanghai — Smartphone shipments in China fell between 12% to 15.5% last year, market data indicated, suggesting a bleak outlook for the sector at a time when behemoths Apple and Samsung Electronics have already issued dour forecasts.

The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), a research institute under the country's ministry of industry and IT, said shipments dropped 15.5% to roughly 390-million units for the year, with a 17% slump in December.

Market research firm Canalys estimates shipments fell 12% in China last year and expects smartphone shipments in 2019 to dip below 400-million for the first time since 2014. The Chinese smartphone market, the world's largest, could shrink another 3%  this year, Canalys said, in what would be a third straight year of declines. Smartphone shipments in the country had fallen 4% in 2017.

Shipments are the number of smartphones that manufacturers deliver to retailers and carriers, different from sales that happen when customers actually buy these smartphones. The plunge in Chinese shipments expected in 2018 could lead to a 1%  contraction in the global smartphone market, Canalys said.

Apple triggered a sell-off in global markets last week after it took the rare step of cutting its quarterly sales forecast citing slowing iPhone sales in China. The country boasts the world’s biggest smartphone market, but a slowing economy, exacerbated by a trade war with the US, has seen demand for gadgets drop across the tech sector.

TuanAnh Nguyen, a Singapore-based analyst for Canalys, told Reuters that China was now a fully mature market and lengthening refresh cycles for smartphones would be the new normal. 

“Weaker economic growth and lower consumer confidence will likely hit the premium segment well into the first half of 2019,” Nguyen said. “Apple certainly was the biggest victim of this trend, with added effects from the fact that it’s lagging behind local competitors in innovation and attractive pricing.” 

On Tuesday, Apple rival and supplier Samsung estimated that its fourth-quarter earnings plunged 29% and that profitability would remain subdued in the current quarter due to weak demand for its memory chips.

Also, Samsung’s display business is struggling due to the lack of growth of its own devices as well as worse-than-expected performance of Apple’s X/XS/XS Max iPhone series, Nguyen said.

Chinese firms Huawei and Xiaomi are challenging Samsung’s dominance in many key markets, he added. Huawei dominates the Chinese market, where the once market-leading Korean firm is now nearly a bit player. Canalys said that Samsung controls more than a fifth of the global market, followed by Huawei, which has a 14% market share.