For Apple’s latest trick, the iCockroach – allowing it to survive while the smartphone sector faces a nuclear winter

Total vendor shipments down 88.5 million year-on-year in first half of 2020

Apple was the sole top five smartphone brand to report any growth in calendar Q2 – for everyone else, sales were in free fall as shipments plummeted across the sector by an astonishing 14 per cent.

In total, 284.7 million devices were sent into retailers or distributors’ warehouses during the three months – down from 331.8 million in the same quarter last year, according to numbers crunched by Canalys.

As headline figures go, this was to be expected. The second quarter saw the imposition of lockdown in most major economies, including the US, where retail accounts for a massive chunk of smartphone sales. And, on a basic level, why would you invest in a new phone if you’re going to be home for an indeterminate period of time, only leaving to buy groceries?

Freshly crowned market leader Huawei’s shipments dropped 5 per cent, although that’s largely because the overwhelming bulk of its volume came from Mainland China, where lockdown was lifted in the second quarter.

This rise to the top came at the expense of Samsung, which has a more diversifed geographic spread of business and is far more exposed to policy decisions taken in Europe and North America. Samsung’s shipments plunged 30 per cent to 53.7 million.

Xiaomi and Oppo dropped 10 and 16 per cent respectively to 28.8 million and 25.8 million.

Only Apple managed to grow sales into the channel, with shipments soaring 25 per cent on a year ago to 45.1 million. And that’s thanks in part to Apple’s decision to revive its previously discontinued budget iPhone SE line.

The iPhone SE is undeniably the least boundary-pushing phone to come from Cupertino in recent years. It’s a conservative beast that uses an old design, and the same chip found on the iPhone 11. But it’s also cheap, allowing Apple to re-enter the middle ground of the market currently dominated by the likes of Xiaomi and Oppo.

More to the point, it’s priced low enough to coax those still clinging to their 2015-vintage iPhone 6s to upgrade. The relative longevity of Apple’s phones is something of a blessing and a curse, fostering loyalty at the expense of sales. Apple needed to deliver something cheaper than the iPhone 11.

“Apple defied expectations in Q2,” said Canalys analyst Vincent Thielke. “Its new iPhone SE was critical in the quarter, accounting for around 28 per cent of its global volume, while iPhone 11 remained a strong best-seller at nearly 40 per cent.”

iPhone sales in China were up 35 per cent to 7.7 million units and Apple also “adapted quickly to the pandemic, doubling down on the digital customer experience as stay-at-home measures drive more customers to online channels,” said Thielke.

Can Apple’s trade be sustained? At the moment, the major crutch propping up many major economies is massive and unprecedented government intervention.

“So far, consumer purchasing power in major markets has remained relatively stable,” said Canalys senior analyst Ben Stanton. “Governments have undertaken extraordinary stimulus initiatives to prop up their economies. However, the real test will be in the coming months, as stimulus money is tapered off, and furlough schemes withdrawn.”

US Congress is divided about the next tranche of government stimuli. Democrats want to continue the current programme, under which the unemployed receive $600 per week from the federal government, in addition to whatever benefits they receive from their local state unemployment insurance programmes. The cost of this is expected to be around $3 trillion.

Republicans, known for their fiscal conservatism, favour tapering off existing benefits, in addition to regulatory reform and an additional one-time $1,200 payment to eligible households.

Closer to home, the UK furlough scheme is gradually being wound down. As of next month, firms will be required to contribute to the cost of paying workers. The scheme itself is expected to close in October – although that may change if there’s a second wave, which will necessitate another punishing lockdown of so-called “non-essential” businesses.

If the coronavirus safety net is dismantled, you can expect discretionary spending to fall precipitously as people prioritise whatever money they have on things like rent, mortgage payments, and food.

That will be bad for the battered smartphone sector, which is already down by 88.5 million units in the first half of 2020 compared to the corresponding period of 2019. Lest we forget, 2019 was the first year that the smartphone market failed to grow.

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Matthew Hughes