Why Sony is ignoring the American market, for now

by: Simon HillMay 14, 2014

Sony Logo

If you doubt Sony’s ambitions in the smartphone market, then you should go and get your hands on the Xperia Z2. It exudes premium Sony style and has the hardware specs required to beat the competition, on paper at least. There’s just one problem — if you’re in the US, you can’t buy it.

A quick glance at comment sections and forums suggests that there is plenty of demand. Frustrated Americans aren’t used to having to wait for the latest electronics. So, why isn’t Sony taking their money?

At MWC, back in February 2013, Sony announced the Xperia Z. After a major restructuring, and its first modest profit for several years in 2012, the Japanese manufacturer was ready to renew its focus on the smartphone market. Ericsson a fading memory, the Xperia Z offered cutting edge specs and an impressive waterproof USP. The idea that this was a one-off was laid to rest six months later when Sony unveiled the improved Xperia Z1, and at MWC this year we got the Xperia Z2.

A major update every six months shows a real commitment to gaining market share and Sony’s sights are firmly set on the premium end of the market. Amid all the plaudits and the suggestion that this sleeping giant might be waking up, there was one big surprise – where was the push for the US market?

Not the right time

sony logo ceo kaz hirai aa

In October last year Sony CEO Kaz Hirai admitted that Sony was focusing on Japan and Europe, because it wasn’t yet ready for the US market. It took around six months before the Xperia Z landed on T-Mobile and the “Uncarrier” now offers the Xperia Z1S as well, but there’s no sign of the Z2 yet. Sony is selling some of its devices unlocked for full price stateside, and they aren’t cheap. In terms of carriers, T-Mobile is the only one to have picked up a Sony smartphone.

Clearly something is a bit wrong with this picture. Sony isn’t an unknown Chinese brand looking for a way to break in. It’s a well-respected name in the US, but there are some compelling business reasons for Sony’s strategy. It hasn’t given up on the American market; it’s just biding its time for the right moment.

Getting its house in order

Sony is a behemoth and it has been at the top of the consumer electronics industry for decades. Any company that’s this big is inevitably slow-moving and resistant to change. The financial results for 2013 marked a return to the red. As a whole, Sony has made a loss in six out of the last seven years. The mobile and gaming divisions are profitable, but the Vaio PC business had to be sold and the TV division has been problematic for years now. The restructuring process is ongoing.

If we look at the smartphone business in isolation then we find that Sony sold 33 million smartphones in 2012, 39 million in 2013, and it’s aiming for 50 million this year. Not only are sales rising, but the ASP (average selling price) has gone up as well.

sony xperia z2 aa (1 of 26)

According to IDC, Sony was 6th for 2013 with a worldwide market share of 3.7%. It started out the year weak and finished it strong, but 60% of its smartphone sales are in Japan and Europe. Sony is building on its base, or as Hirai put it, talking to Reuters, “It’s not realistic to try to do everything at once. In the U.S. we’ll start gradually.”

Cracking the carriers

Carriers in the US wield an unusually large amount of power over the smartphone industry if you compare it with other nations. They expect manufacturers to spend big on their products. They want huge marketing campaigns, promotions, low wholesale prices, and exclusive versions. Presumably there’s an expectation there of a major financial commitment that Sony isn’t really in a place to make right now. There were also rumblings about problems in Sony’s supply chain which caused delays for the Xperia Z2.

sony xperia z1s review aa-3

The premium end of the market

There’s another issue with the US market which is particularly problematic for Sony and that’s Apple. According to NPD, the iPhone has a market share of 45% in the US. In some ways, looking at the premium market, Sony’s biggest opposition is Apple. That’s despite the fact that Steve Jobs was a huge Sony fan and the Japanese company was an inspiration for him.

In Sony’s home market of Japan, Apple’s deal with NTT DoCoMO was a major assault. Apple captured a share of 36.6% for the last financial year and that compares to 12.3% for Sony, according to a Bloomberg report. Sony has its work cut out increasing that share in Japan, where you would imagine it’s easier for it to get a good ROI on marketing campaigns. If it works out to be more expensive on average to capture a new customer in the US and Sony is still making gains in markets like Japan, then it makes sense to pick the right battles.

samsung galaxy s5 vs sony xperia z2 (12 of 14)

Android accounts for almost 70% of devices in Europe, and Apple is much weaker with an 18.5% share, so it also represents a better opportunity for Sony. In the first quarter of 2013, Sony claimed third place behind Samsung and Apple in Western Europe, and Kantar found that many Samsung smartphone owners were switching to Sony in the UK. A full 38% of Xperia Z buyers were ex-Samsung owners.

Sony has no interest in the budget end of the market, but aiming for the high-end makes a head-to-head with Samsung and Apple inevitable. Coming from a weaker position, with some dead weight dragging the smartphone division back, Sony simply can’t afford to open up too many fronts.

No comfort

All of this news is not going to serve to comfort Americans looking to buy the Xperia Z2 right now. It will undoubtedly land at some point, but it could be months away, and there’s a chance the Z3 will be out by then. In the meantime what can you do? Petition your carriers to strike a deal, order it online, or drive across the border and pick one up in Canada. If you’re put off by the price tag then take a loan, after all, that’s effectively what you’re doing when you sign up to a two year contract with a carrier.

If Sony smartphone’s business continues to grow and it can get the other divisions sorted out, then rest-assured it will return to the US market all guns blazing.

  • MasterMuffin

    Ignore Europe and no one bats an eye

    ignore USA and everyone loses their minds

    • Box215

      Who was ignoring Europe?

      • Joshua Hill

        Google and Motorola off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many more manufacturers.

    • chaki-

      Master….Muffin….. the east knew that 200 years ago. That’s why they use uuuuuussssaaaaaaa. Man those guys were seen the future :P

  • Victor Who

    Isn’t Sony a Japanese brand?

    • NoWay

      Nah. I’m pretty sure its an American brand. Enough though the article says its a Japanese business/brand/corp still pretty sure its a American.

      • Azeem

        Sony is not an American brand. Only Motorola is.

        • xyge


        • wezi427

          Soon to be Chinese.

        • Joshua Hill

          Turn your sarcasm detector on please good sir ;)

  • MSmateo

    Why r u all getting mad cuz z2 didnt land in US yet but it europe did? Most of europe still doesnt have acces to google music, moves not to mention…

    • REAL6

      I’ve had Google music for more than 3 years now and I’m in Denmark.

      • Joshua Hill

        Is Denmark most of Europe?

  • Teic

    I sense the author is a Sony fan :)

    • cellabonez

      *raise hands* i am and i live in jamaica, the unknown part of central america

  • Scott

    Seems like a double edged sword to me. The longer they wait for “the right moment” the more opportunities will continually be missed. I love everything about the Z2. I wanted nothing more than for it to be my next phone. But who knows when it’s coming to the US….so it looks like I’ll be going with the LG G3 instead. I don’t have the disposable cash to buy the phone full price outside the states as some people have done. I’m sure there are plenty of other people in my position. So, missed opportunity for Sony. Will it hurt them in the long run? Who knows….time will tell. You’ve got to jump into the game sooner or later.

    • cellabonez

      do you know that marketing deal with carriers are much more fulfilling with other american countries than the united states, i hope AA wil do a follow up and compare what they are doing vs what att , verizon and t-mobile are asking for from some sony

  • thepanttherlady

    I ordered mine from the UK. Problem solved.

    • K2

      Yeah i have heard quite a few people ‘import’ phones from abroad into the states.

  • Joshua Hill

    ‘A quick glance at comment sections and forums suggests’ that previous Xperia Z devices have had a number of faults and Sony has been unwilling to help affected customers. Have a look at “bent frames/phones” and “LED flash bleed” for an idea. Buyer beware if purchasing from a company in decline with a record of ignoring it’s own customers!

  • itzvarma

    Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, my next phone. im sure they will not disappoint.

  • raddar

    simple, most americans are izombies

  • Andrew White

    In order for Sony to compete in the smartphone arena, prices need to be lowered.
    I like what they offer generally, but there is an expectation that you are buying into a quality item.
    Which is true, but we dont buy a smartphone to last 5 years. 12 to 18 months maybe.
    So give me a ‘state of the art’ device at a reasonable price and I will come back real soon you here…..to buy another and another.