Why have smartphone sales started to fall?

Posted: 27 February 2018 8:35 am

Despite more choices and better prices, we're not buying in.

So here's a twist: the number of smartphones purchased around the world actually declined slightly in the last quarter of 2017 compared to the same time the previous year. According to figures from Gartner, total global sales of smartphones in the fourth quarter of 2017 were around 407.8 million units, compared to 432.1 million the previous year. That's the first time Gartner has seen such a year-on-year slip since it began tracking smartphone sales back in 2004.

So what gives? Gartner's analysts point to two factors: the gap between "feature phones" and smartphones is shrinking, so not everyone needs to upgrade, and we're hanging onto our phones longer. That ties in with what we're seeing elsewhere. Finder's own consumer research shows that Australians are typically keeping their phones for nearly three years, rather than upgrading every 24 months when our contracts expire. Given that SIM-only plans are much cheaper, that's a useful move.

There are also some brand-specific issues. Apple, for instance, had a double-edged problem with the release of the iPhone X. Because it came out later than the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, some customers held off buying the 8. As well, iPhone X supplies were limited, so Apple didn't see the sales boost you might expect from launching three new models. Gartner is predicting that means Apple will see bigger than usual sales in Q1 2018, though we remain very much in an Android world: Android phones account for 85.9% of total sales.

Samsung also saw its market share slip slightly, although it remains the top-selling brand worldwide. You can see sales for the top 5 brands across the year below. Notable by their relatively small market share are some of the traditional "premium" players like Sony and LG, who end up lumped into "other".

Brand2017 sales2017 market share

All these developments will doubtless be making all the manufacturers announcing their new models at Mobile World Congress a little nervous. So far, there's no obvious stand-out feature amongst the phones we've seen announced, just a lot of incremental upgrades. That's bad news for manufacturers, but good news for consumers, since it means you can happily hang onto your phone for longer, and score a good price when you do eventually upgrade.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears regularly on finder.com.au.

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