China, the first country to be ravaged by COVID-19 at the beginning of the year, is starting to go back to work. And it’s already clear that the smartphone, regarded as a must-have personal item, could play a key role in bringing about the new normal of social distancing and safe procedures.

Dozens of multinationals have restarted business across the country, fully aware of how wary consumers will be as they adapt to the new life after lockdown. New procedures that work will be eagerly adopted by other countries as they too look to life after lockdown.

Car maker Ford, for example, is using the smartphone to enable Chinese car buyers to avoid visiting showrooms at all. It has developed an app that allows people to buy a car online, and so create a “zero-touch” world, the FT reports.

The process allows “doorstep delivery of sanitised vehicles”, it says, adding that the huge effort to “eliminate human contact, including new ways of handing over keys, is transforming the business of buying a car in China” according to industry executives.

Inevitably, best practices will be picked up in other markets.

Not every consumer trend in China driven by the COVID-19 crisis will apply elsewhere, but one set to be universal is the huge growth in online shopping – here the smartphone will play a central role.

Online sales make up around 30% of total retail spend in China, and this grew further in March, say economists at Morgan Stanley.

“More people in China are using e-commerce than they were before the crisis, including older people,” Laxman Narasimhan, chief executive of consumer goods group Reckitt Benckiser, told the FT. “We expect that to actually stay because they have learnt a new behaviour now. People are going to shop differently coming out of this crisis and we are getting ready for that.”

The indispensable nature of the smartphone to the Chinese consumer is reflected in the latest sales data, which show a fall in phone shipments during the first quarter of the year as the COVID-19 crisis hit, but by less than many had forecast.

Data from Canalys shows shipments of smartphones reached 73 million in China – down overall by 18% compared to the previous year. Huawei remained the leading seller, and the only brand among the top five to record growth in Q1, albeit of only 1%. Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi recorded annualised sales falls of -26% -19% and -26% respectively. Apple – fifth in terms of market share – saw a fall of -4%.

“The smartphone’s status as an ‘essential’ personal item has stopped the market falling further during the pandemic,” said Nicole Peng, VP of Mobility at Canalys. 

Sourced from Canalys, Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff