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Worldwide smartphone shipments plummet due to the coronavirus

This year was expected to see a comeback for smartphone makers, but COVID-19 derailed those hopes.

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Smartphone shipments in the first quarter were hit hard by the coronavirus.

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The global smartphone market posted its biggest decline ever in the first quarter, due to lockdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic, analysts reported Thursday. Market researcher IDC estimated that shipments declined 11.7% year over year, while Canalys estimated the drop was as much as 13%.

A decline in shipments was expected, as China, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, is key to the world's smartphone supply chain. The country, which accounts for almost a quarter of worldwide shipments, saw the greatest decline, at 20.3%, followed by Western Europe, at 18.3% and the US, which posted a 16.1% decline, IDC said.

"What started as primarily a supply-side problem initially limited to China has grown into a global economic crisis with the demand-side impact starting to show by the end of the quarter," Nabila Popal, research director with IDC's Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers, said in a statement.

In total, manufacturers shipped 275.8 million smartphones in the quarter, IDC reported. The quarter marked the first time since the first quarter of 2014 that the market dropped below 300 million shipments in a single quarter, Counterpoint research reported.

The decline is a blow to handset makers, which had expected 2020 to be a comeback year for the industry, as innovations like 5G and foldable screens got people shopping again. Instead, financial struggles and worries about COVID-19 will limit the number of devices companies can make and how many phones people will actually buy.

"Demand for new devices has been crushed," Canalys Senior Analyst Ben Stanton said in a statement, explaining that when the virus flared up in China in February, vendors were mostly concerned about how to build enough devices to meet demand.

"Smartphone manufacturing has now recovered, but as half the world entered lockdown, sales plummeted," Stanton said. "Many customers who would have bought a new smartphone as a luxury have delayed that purchase." 

Samsung regained the global smartphone crown, shipping 58.3 million smartphones in the quarter, for a 21.1% market share, despite an 18.9% decline, IDC reported. Chinese smartphone maker Huawei grabbed the No. 2 spot, with a 17.8% market share, even though its shipments dropped 17.1%.

No. 3 Apple fared better than its competitors, shipping 36.7 million iPhones in the quarter for a 13.6% market share on shipments that declined on 0.4% in the quarter, IDC said.