By Sankalp Phartiyal
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Chinese brands took their largest ever slice of the $10-billion Indian smartphone market in late 2016, accounting for more than one in every two phones sold - a growing market share that ate into sales from top-selling Samsung Electronics.
Samsung, the single most popular smartphone brand in India, commanded a roughly 30 percent market share just over a year ago. That slipped to 21 percent in November, according to tech research firm Counterpoint, the last month for which data is available.
Meanwhile - thanks to low cost, improved technology and an advertising blitz - Chinese brands like Oppo, Lenovo, OnePlus, Gionee and Xiaomi took a combined share of over 50 percent, compared to just 19 percent a year ago.
"Chinese brands are offering quality that is at par with Samsung, at a better price," said Manish Khatri, who owns two multi-brand smartphone outlets in Mumbai. "Of every 10 phones I sell, almost six to seven are now Chinese brands."
Celebrity endorsements from Bollywood actors like Hrithik Roshan and Ranveer Singh, along with huge sponsorship campaigns by brands such as Oppo and Gionee of the wildly popular Indian Premier League cricket franchise have helped improve perception of Chinese brands - once derided for their low quality.
"In a country like India, there are two religions - one is Bollywood and the second is cricket," said Arvind R Vohra, Gionee's India head, noting that both avenues have helped popularize its brand.
Chinese brand executives said innovative product features such as powerful selfie cameras with flash, quicker charging and longer-lasting batteries have also helped them thrive in India, one of the world's biggest and fastest growing smartphone markets.
In the large and ultra-competitive $120 to $440 mid-market smartphone segment, Chinese vendors have more than doubled their market share to 68 percent, while Samsung has lost 14 percentage points since November 2015, according to Counterpoint.
"Being a global company is Samsung's biggest curse," says Neil Shah of Counterpoint, adding Samsung cannot compete on price like their Chinese rivals, who are focused more on low-cost markets like China, India and Indonesia.
Shah said Chinese vendors' access to low-cost components and their expertise in designing metal casing for cheap phones has let brands like Oppo, OnePlus and Lenovo offer better quality products than Samsung, which uses plastic for its cheapest models.
Adding to Samsung's woes last year was the arrival of billionaire Mukesh Ambani's new telecom venture Jio, with heavily subsidised handsets to get customers on its 4G network.
Dyaneshwar Sarde, a 33-year-old Indian farmer who earlier used a Samsung device, said he wanted to buy a 4G smartphone to use Reliance Jio.
"Samsung phones were comparatively expensive, so I ended up buying a Lenovo a friend recommended."
India's home-grown brands such as Micromax, Lava and Karbonn are feeling the heat even more, according to Counterpoint, with their total market share having dropped to less than 20 percent from over 40 percent last year.
(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Clara Ferreira-Marques and Randy Fabi)