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Tech, global giants grappling with rising Chinese consumer anxiety

Apple, Ford, Tiffany among companies reporting abrupt declines in sales in China.

Pedestrians walk past the Apple logo in Beijing,

Pedestrians walk past the Apple logo in Beijing, China, on Thursday. Photo Credit: AP / Ng Han Guan

BEIJING — Apple Inc.'s $1,000 iPhone is a tough sell to consumers in China unnerved by an economic slump and the trade war with the United States.

CEO Tim Cook said in a letter to shareholders released Wednesday that demand for iPhones is waning and revenue for the last quarter of 2018 will fall well below projections, a decrease he traced mainly to China.

The tech giant is just the latest global company grappling with increasing Chinese consumer anxiety. Other brand names such as Ford Motor Co. and jeweler Tiffany & Co. already have reported abrupt declines in sales to Chinese buyers.

China still is one of the fastest-growing economies, with 2018's expansion forecast at about 6.5 percent. But China's tariff fight with the United States and an avalanche of bad news about tumbling auto and real estate sales are undermining consumer confidence after two decades of almost unbroken rapid growth.

"People are worried about losing jobs," said Emily Li, a 37-year-old advertising designer in Beijing. She said she is putting off replacing her car or making other major purchases.

Weakness in Chinese demand is especially painful for Apple and other smartphone makers. China accounts for one-third of the industry's global handset shipments.

Shipments in China fell 10 percent from a year earlier to 103 million handsets in the quarter ending in September, according to research firm IDC. It expects last year's total Chinese purchases to shrink by 8 to 9 percent compared with 2016.

The belt-tightening in the world's second-largest economy is bedeviling global industries, including autos and designer clothing, that count on China to drive sales growth.

The trade war with Washington has shaken a "sense of China's invincibility," said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting, a research firm in Beijing. Chinese are waking up to the fact that their economy is vulnerable to the uncertainties of the global economy, he said.

The slump is a setback for the ruling Communist Party's efforts to nurture self-sustaining, consumer-driven economic growth and wean China from its reliance on exports and investment.

China's third-quarter economic growth of 6.5 percent was stronger than most other major economies, but the country's lowest since the 2008 global crisis.

Beijing has propped up growth with higher government spending, helping to offset painful contractions in some areas.

Still, auto sales in the biggest global market are on track for their first annual decline in three decades after plunging 16 percent in November. Soft real estate sales have forced developers to cut prices.

Overall, export growth decelerated to 5.4 percent over a year earlier, less than half October's 12.6 percent rate.

Sales to the U.S. market have held up despite President Donald Trump's punitive tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods, rising 12.9 percent in November over a year earlier. But that was thanks partly to exporters rushing to beat further American duty increases — a trend that is starting to fade.

Apple's setback also highlights another challenge: increasingly capable Chinese competitors whose products cost less.

In smartphones, that includes Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. Some are priced as low as $70. Others have beaten the American giant to market with features Chinese users want, such as phones that can use separate carriers for voice and data.

That has eroded the iPhone's cachet and customers' willingness to pay premium prices.

"I think 10,000 yuan [$1,400] for an iPhone is too much," said Vivian Yang, a manager at a Beijing technology company. "Nobody needs such a phone."

Apple's third-quarter shipments in China fell 13 percent from a year earlier to 7.5 million units, according to IDC. Its market share of 7.5 percent put it in fifth place at less than one-third Huawei's 24.6 percent share.

In his letter to Apple shareholders, Cook gave no China sales figures for the final quarter of the year but said traffic to retailers declined as "mounting uncertainty" fueled by the trade fight weighed on demand.

Globally, Apple fell behind Huawei to become the No. 3 brand by number of handsets sold in the third quarter, according to IDC. South Korea's Samsung Electronics was in first place.

Yuan Yuan, an employee of a social media company in Beijing, reflects the pressures on urban professionals squeezed by rising living costs and job uncertainty.

Yuan, 26, said his monthly income fluctuates between $425 and $1,400 and only covers living expenses.

As a university student, Yuan had an iPhone paid for by his parents. But once he had to buy his own, he switched to a lower-priced Xiaomi.

"I have no plans to buy an apartment, a car or any other major items," Yuan said.

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