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Why Sony is ignoring the American market, for now

Sony’s flagship Xperia Z smartphone line marries cutting edge hardware with premium style, but if you’re shopping for Sony in the US your options are horribly limited. What’s going on? Why can't Americans buy the latest Sony smartphones?
May 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.