Gather, darkness: The smartphone market’s witching hour is near

Smartphone Market Sales Analysis

So Nokia missed its smartphone volume expectation by about 10%. BlackBerry missed its BlackBerry 10 volume consensus by about 15%. And HTC missed its earnings consensus by about 35% (HTC updates its revenue numbers every month, so it never misses quarterly sales numbers by much). The autumn outlook is gruesome for these second-tier vendors for many, many reasons. First, they all ramped up their key models during the spring with the Nokia Lumia 520, the BlackBerry Q10 and Z10, and the HTC One. This was not just any old quarter. This was a quarter when all three had major new models shipping pretty much throughout the quarter. By autumn, all of these new models will start losing their pricing power. A slow start is bad news these days.

Second, Apple’s new product launch hullabaloo is drawing close. For the first time ever, Apple is expected to launch both a new flagship phone and a budget model. This is going to suck a lot of oxygen out of the room.

Third, Samsung’s Galaxy S4 sales are now widely thought to be falling off faster than anticipated. This will very likely lead to aggressive marketing support for the device as well as possibly accelerated launch schedules of new Samsung Galaxy spin-off models, particularly in the budget category. Samsung is famous for reacting to volume softness with jacked up marketing support and lower priced new product launches.

Fourth, it does not look like North America is the only problem for the handset market. The United States smartphone upgrade cycle is clearly slowing down. This is now being reflected by new carrier plans trying to goad consumers into upgrading more often. But the real issue could be Europe, a region that Nokia, HTC and BlackBerry each lean heavily on. HTC and BlackBerry do not offer detailed quarterly regional break-downs by region, but Nokia does. And Nokia’s European handset volume in Q2 2013 dropped shockingly to 11.3 million units from 11.8 million units in Q1 2013. It is not a big drop, but it happened during the quarter when the cheap Lumia 520 had ample time to ramp up in European markets. Europe tends to have a pronounced seasonal smartphone shipment uptick from Q1 to Q2 every calendar year. It did not buoy vendors in 2013.

What is going on in the European smartphone market? This may be one key focus area when Apple reports its June quarter. Apple already faced rapidly dropping unit volume growth in Europe during the March quarter as the iPhone 5 starts losing Euro consumer interest. The spring was probably a tough period in Europe for all leading vendors. Autumn could be a red rout for most of them if consumer apathy deepens.

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