Samsung's real Achilles' heel: Low-end, emerging markets

With local smartphone makers in China and India toppling Samsung, the company is feeling the heat in the fastest-growing markets.

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Samsung's Galaxy S5 hasn't boosted results as much as hoped. CNET

Samsung's got a problem, and this time, it's not Apple.

The South Korean electronics maker is the biggest smartphone vendor in the world, but cracks are starting to show. In the second quarter, Samsung lost its footing at the top of the smartphone markets in both China and India, and it also reported a steep drop in company profits.

The recent setbacks underscore just how difficult it is for a company like Samsung, which attempts to sell a phone to everyone regardless of budget or geography, when price competition is heating up. That may mean it's time for Samsung's management to figure out a new strategy, particularly when it comes to the fast-growing, inexpensive handset market.

"Samsung was, for some time, the default option if you wanted to buy an Android phone," Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said. "Now Chinese competitors are coming in, undercutting on price, and producing very effective devices. They're eating Samsung's lunch."

Almost everyone who wants a smartphone in places such as the US and Western Europe now has one. That means Apple and Samsung, the kings of the mobile industry, have to look to developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil for growth. According to ARM Holdings -- the company whose chip technology powers the vast majority of the world's mobile devices, including those from Apple and Samsung -- there will be 1 billion low-end smartphones shipped in 2018, compared with 550 million mid-range and 250 million premium smartphones.

Apple and Samsung recognize the importance of emerging regions, but they each take different approaches. Apple sells a few pricey devices that consumers aspire to own. Its new partnership with China Mobile, the world's biggest wireless carrier, has helped it post soaring results in China. Even its "affordable" option, the iPhone 5C, is far more expensive than the typical mass-market smartphone at $549 off contract.

Samsung, meanwhile, blankets the market with phones of all prices and capabilities, from the high end to the low. Over the last four years, the strategy has paid off for the company by giving it a dominant market share position. It has been the top smartphone vendor in China, India, and many other countries for the past couple of years, and it also has been the world's biggest handset vendor overall since unseating Nokia in the first quarter of 2012. Customers have sought out Samsung's phones for their strong hardware and the allure of the Galaxy line, and its growth in Asia has contributed to its rise in the overall mobile market.

But the company has stumbled of late. Research firm Canalys on Monday said Samsung slid to second place in the Chinese smartphone market for the first time since the fourth quarter of 2011, ceding its position to hot Chinese vendor Xiaomi. Then fellow researcher Counterpoint Research said Indian vendor Micromax knocked Samsung from its position at the top of the mobile phone market in India.

"Samsung is fighting these guys with products sold at premium prices without the premium ecosystem Apple uses to justify those high price points," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said. "It's having difficulties."

Samsung admitted during its second-quarter earnings report last week that excess inventory in China and Europe caused device sales to slide, and Samsung increased the amount it spent on marketing to counteract the issue. It also noted that its earnings were hurt by increased price competition and weaker demand for 3G products in China ahead of expected growth of 4G LTE products in that market. Those factors contributed to a 30 percent drop in profits in Samsung's mobile division in the June quarter.

But what's more worrisome is there's no end in sight to those struggles. Samsung warned the second half of 2014 would "remain a challenge" as competition in the mobile market would lead to lower device prices and weaker results. It hinted at two new high-end smartphones and wearables, but there's the dilemma: few consumers in the emerging markets can afford to buy those products.

What Samsung's rivals in China, India, and other emerging markets generally have in common is they're local to the regions they now dominate. They know what matters most to consumers, and they're also willing to sacrifice profits -- or even outright lose money -- to gain customers. The companies believe they'll make money once their volumes increase and component costs decline.

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The Xiaomi Mi 4 has specs similar to the Galaxy S5. Aloysius Low/CNET

In China, for instance, Xiaomi puts high-end specs in its phones but sells them for mid- or low-end prices. The company has been in the smartphone industry for only four years, but it has already surpassed Samsung in the world's biggest phone market with devices such as the $154 Redmi Note or the $322 Mi 4. By comparison, Samsung's Galaxy S5 flagship phone, which has specs similar to the Mi 4, retails for about $650 off contract.

Samsung has some tough choices ahead. It has to decide just what it's willing to give up to succeed in the emerging markets and just what success there means -- profitability or market share. It can go the path of Apple by keeping its device prices steady but sacrificing its No. 1 position. Or it can load lower-end devices with high-end specs and cut prices to gain share at the cost of razor-thin margins.

"They do need to really figure out what they want to achieve," Kantar Worldpanel analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "They can't continue to do everything for everybody."

No matter what it decides, Samsung will have to figure that out soon. After all, the Chinese and Indian vendors aren't slowing down.

 

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