Introducing the Chinese Grey Market Android Tablets

Buckle up because this is going to get interesting. What I am going to elaborate on is perhaps one of the most disturbing and potentially disruptive things that I picked up on at CES. As many of our readers know, I have been studying and compiling data for my Creative Strategies reports around the Chinese consumer technology market. I shared some high level thoughts around the market for Android smartphones in this column where I layout how Android in China is the wild wild west. Yet that market looks fairly organized compared to what is happening with low-end Android tablets in China.

What are Grey Market Tablets

You might be wondering what I mean when I say the grey market tablets. This means several things. First they are made up largely by white box tablets coming to market by a no name brand. A company or shelter company was started to simply take entry level ODM tablets and bring them to market. These devices come with stripped down versions of Android (AOSP). Meaning its basically stock with just a few simple apps pre-loaded and stripped of Google services because they are irrelevant in China. These devices don’t come with any services, including Google’s or from any other like Tencent, 360, Baidu, etc. Consumers who buy these tablets need to go download a local app store (or several) and customize them with the local services they choose. Lastly, the grey market also means how they are sold. Let me explain this last part.

When Tim and I were in Shenzen a few years ago by random accident we happened upon one of the more interesting things I have ever seen. We entered a building that looked like an indoor mall and what we saw was four levels of flea market style booths and tables all selling cell phones and smartphones. The place was bustling with people shopping for phones. As soon as we walked in I knew what we stumbled upon and tried to take my phone out and take a picture. To no surprise the second I tried a nearby guard said I couldn’t take any pictures.

What happens in these technology flea markets is buyers come in loaded with boxes of smartphones and tablets inventory and sell them for extremely low cost (often negotiated rather than fixed). Sometimes hard to find devices make it to they grey market here and go for prices well above retail. This activity is legal but unregulated. When vendors sell out their inventory they close up and come back the next day with more. Given the amount of commerce and the amount of people I observed, I would approximate that many tens of thousands of devices change hands in each of these locations every day and who knows how many of them their are all over China. The grey market sales channel also includes smaller local Chinese shops selling these devices as well. The key thing to understand it that the grey market is parallel to the traditional sales channel but less regulated. This is a simple picture of the grey market in China.

[UPDATE] Engadget’s Chinese Editor Richard Lai shared this link and photo where he was able to get a picture of one of these markets.

How Cheap and How Many?

While I was at CES, I talked to a vendor mass producing several versions of these low cost tablets at volume in China. This particular vendor had the lowest cost 7” Android tablet I could find and it was $47 dollars (292.51 CNY). Nearly every vendor I spoke with was around this range offering Android tablets starting at 7” and going to 10.1” for a range of $47-$60 for 7-inch all the way to $150 for 10-inch. There is unquestionably a massive and rapidly growing market for extremely cheap Android tablets in China. How big this grey market is hard to quantify and I know I am not the only analyst currently trying.

The challenge is that these are being built by many second or third tier manufacturers. Many of these are off the radar but are sourcing older generation materials from many of the usual component manufacturers. Although these second and third tier manufactures don’t have massive capacity, there are many of them popping up all over the place. They are sourcing later generation components like SoCs, memory, and displays, which have dropped in price, have higher yields but are also looking to be moved in volume by the source to clear inventory for newer products. Also, because these are moving in volume through non-traditional parallel channels, it makes it that much more difficult to track.

However, through some trusted sources in the supply chain who have common parts across these devices, I think I can approximate its size potential. Toward the later half of 2012 these tablets sold into China and grey market, super cheap, locally made Android tablets were creeping up on 20 million a quarter. This segment is gaining steam and I believe the market for tablets in China could be as high as 200 million units in 2013 largely driven by the grey market and super cheap Android tablets. I know this seems shockingly high and is much higher than other firms estimates. But it is these super low-cost Android tablets that could bump the number up and lead China to pass the US in tablet sales next year. If this scenario plays out as we believe it means that we could be looking at total worldwide tablet sales of over 400m in 2013. Meaning if we count these low end Android tablets we could sell more tablets than PCs in 2013. Also based on overall triple digit tablet growth in China, which is line with many supply chain forecasts I have seen, this number is plausible. There is of course the question of local manufacturing being able to meet demand but as I said sources are popping up all over the place as this is beginning to smell like a gold rush.

Significant Implications

This of course has significant implications on many levels. First of all legitimate brands are going to be challenged to compete with dozens upon dozens of upstarts looking to trade margins for volume just to make a quick buck. These off brand white box companies do not have sustainable businesses but it sure has the potential to make some people fairly rich overnight. Get in, ride the wave as long as possible, get out.

This growing movement has the potential to thwart the growth opportunity for many legitimate brands trying to build legitimate products and add value around hardware, software, and services specifically for the APAC region. Of course many legitimate brands will still do well in China because the market is so big, particularly in the tier one more developed regions of China. However, those buying these cheap tablets are likely not also buying ones from a major brand. So arguably, these low end devices are stealing customers from the legitimate brands.

Although all of this sounds crazy and like a hot mess (which it is), it is potentially a good thing for the China tablet market. These grey market tablets will help develop the market for tablets at large. As Chinese customers experience these products for the first time and potentially refresh them several times a year, these consumers will become accustomed to their needs, wants, and desires with regards to tablets and then begin to shop for products who are innovating and adding value. This is where the brand comes in, because as value is established in the mind of the consumer, they are willing to pay more for the function and convenience.

Many of us in the developed world are extremely accustomed to many technologies like smartphones, tablets, and PCs. We understand, for the most part, what we want and why we want it. Billions of consumers in China do not and that is the point. This market is extremely immature and undeveloped. There are huge problems to be solved in that region but those buying grey market products do not know that yet. The hope is that over time as they experience the pain points for themselves, that those who are investing in adding value and solving those pain points will begin to reap the rewards.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

95 thoughts on “Introducing the Chinese Grey Market Android Tablets”

  1. You might to check out a TED talk by Robert Neuwirth: The power of the informal economy. It deals with this subject with examples from China and Africa. He spent 4 years researching this and isn’t at all negative about this sector. I would say the legitimate brands are very aware of this and even use it for their own research ends.

    1. I’m not negative about the grey market either I just think it adds a competitive dynamic that needs to be factored into analysis on that region. It adds variables that don’t exist in most markets. The cheap tablets I will be a bit more negative on because they are really poor experiences. I’m not sure any of these brands want to move up stream and add value and are thus just playing the role of low end disruptors.

      Which is the part that also adds a new dynamic but is also questionably healthy for such an important segment as tablets given the new use cases they can enable from a computing stand point.

      1. I agree with you that these gray market tablets and smartphones will introduce a lot of people in China to the technology. Sort of like the way that AOL introduced millions to the Internet. Then users went out and purchased their own connections to other true ISP’s. So these new tablets will be like training wheels where they can show the value and provide training of the technology to the people that have no computer and are experiencing technolog for the 1st time.

      2. Ben, are really poor experiences with extremely junky tablets going to turn people on to computers? If you’re learning to ride a bike and the bike keeps dumping you on the ground, will you become enthusiastic about riding?

        1. Its a great question but like I pointed out we are talking about massive amounts of people with no real frame of reference for computing. Many in China still have feature phones (vast majority) but smartphones are growing like crazy as well and are really their only primary experiences with computing devices. For that part of the world the mobile is the computer. So with no frame of reference, these devices set the base then hopefully consumers will look to go upstream.

          1. Another tech Website reviewed a tablet of the kind you’re talking about and their recommendation about it was “Run screaming as fast as possible in the opposite direction.”

  2. Its taken a bit longer than I initially thought, but the “commodification” of tablets appears to be coming. While I’d imagine these $40 tablets are kind of junky by western standards, it seems likely that the price of a decent 7″ unit in the west will drop below $150 (and perhaps $100) by the end of this year.

    Its going to be interesting to see what Apple does to maintain its advantage and preserve its margins.

    1. Extremely junky from my time with it. But as you say it could evolve and get better. I’m not sure the degree these ultra-cheap Android tablets may make it to the west but yes it will cause pricing pressure. And I think many of us have to be honest with ourselves when we look at this and if for under $100 we could get a bare naked Android tablet why wouldn’t we simply put these all over the house, if for nothing else but browsing the web? Screen or multiple screen in every room?

      1. This is essentially my thinking. If you can get “good enough” access to Amazon content, Google services, Facebook, etc. for $100, what will Apple do to make you want to spend more?

        I’m not saying Apple can’t or won’t do anything, but I think this is a significant challenge, and I’m interested to see how they handle it.

        1. I believe the same way they handled the desktop and laptop market by making a better value added product.

          One good example is the car market do they need to make a product that is real cheap and cheap kind of equate to not as good.

          Many are still making the assumption that Mac desktops and laptops are using the same commodity components and yet they last much longer and hold their values better.

          One more thing those who can afford it will and wouldn’t mind paying the premium.

      2. “under $100 we could get a bare naked Android tablet why wouldn’t we
        simply put these all over the house, if for nothing else but browsing
        the web? Screen or multiple screen in every room?”

        Cheap junky tablets in each room because they are cheap?

        It sounds like the extreme of wasteful, excessive, junk consumerism, leading to excess clutter and tons of e-waste. At that point you don’t own your gadgets, they own you.

        I would MUCH rather buy one high quality tablet and carry it to the room I want to use it in. It isn’t like they weigh 40 Kilos.

    2. “Its going to be interesting to see what Apple does to maintain its advantage and preserve its margins.” – nothing. Apple cannot forever be, and, in fact, does not have to be the biggest, most valued company in the world. It is only market leader in the tablet market because it actually invented it. However, in my opinion, as the computer industry (incl. tablets, phones, pc’s, etc.) slowly – and finally – becomes a mature market, Apple, Samsung, and a few other companies will likely to become premium brands, like BMW or Mercedes in the car industry, while other, cheaper brands, with just as reliable and usable products will flood the mass market (like Suzuki, Opel, etc.). Apple and Samsung may lose their top seller status, but they will continue to make an enorous amount of profits to their shareholders.

  3. This reminds of the early days of PCs. The largest selling brand was always “Other.” The difference is that smaller PC makers routinely created boxes that were superior to the major brands and often offered personalized service that was better as well.

    But this story reminds me of the world of knock-off purses and DVD players. Caveat emptor.

    Based on this, what are the chances that foreign companies, like Samsung and Apple, will benefit? It seems like ZTE, Huawei and other homegrown companies have the edge.

    1. This is exactly my thinking. This market smells just like the early PC market from the standpoint of how the market is reacting. Its obviously going to develop magnitudes faster than the PC industry but I think we can use lessons from that era to wrap around what is happening here. Besides the reality that these devices are the PC for Chinese consumers, so it is in fact the birth of the Chinese computer market.

      Local brands tied to local services absolutely have the edge right now but also are gaining in popularity. There are Chinese brands that are beginning to get the kind of appeal as major global brands. Check out the BBK Vivo smart phone for an example.

      Realistically Apple, Samsung, or whoever need to determine the size of their TAM in China. I think in Apple’s case if they can get and defend something like 20-25% keeping their current market strategy, they have a huge business. Perhaps Samsung takes a similar strategy as well. The market is so big it will sustain many players with pieces of the pie.

      But to the last point I made in this column, these low end devices will mature the market. Once that happens I think its fair game.

  4. Fast forward 3 years from the time of this article and many of these businesses have matured. Many tablets and phones now that have the same hardware or sometimes better hardware from chinese companies are selling for less than half the price.

    As others have said, they trade margin for volume. And while there is a lot I don’t like about Chinese companies gaining market share, in the end it’s beneficial to the western consumer, even in the long term. Something that can’t be said about many other products that are harmful to the western economy in the long term because they are manufactured in China.

    It seems at time of this post, the major brand manufacturers won’t be able to keep up with 50-90% margins, which is a good thing for the consumer. The big brand companies have been price gouging consumers for far to long with very slow technological advancement. The tablet and phone market is finally picking up pace and hardware is getting better at a much faster rate as well.

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