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How phone cases became a huge business

Phone-cases-w

Phone cases are in demand

Even if “mirror selfies” isn’t part of your daily lexicon it is not hard to figure out its meaning: rather than taking a photo directly – that is smartphone camera-to-face, like traditional selfies – the image is captured by reflection in a mirror.  Regular selfies can only capture parts of your look, but enthusiasts, like model Kendall Jenner, say a mirror selfie allows a much wider shot so the taker can include more of their outfit.

Thanks to the growing popularity of mirror selfies, phone cases, which grab the ‘bullseye’ position in the picture, have become the hottest tech accessory at the moment.

Over the years, phone covers have evolved from just protecting the phone against scratches, dings, and cracks. For Gen Z consumers, case design is now a crucial form of self-expression, with luxury labels from Bottega Veneta to Louis Vuitton all competing for a share of the market. “I like cartoons and glittery phone cases; they really satisfy my inner girliness. Some stores offer 25% off when you buy three phone cases, so I often place an order for three at a time,” one female consumer told 36Kr, a news portal. 

According to data from NPD Group, 75% of smartphone owners  use protective cases, and 25% of them will buy more than two cases. After all, even the least expensive smartphones have been going up in  price. “I dare not let my mobile phone ‘go naked’. I just feel much more at ease with a phone case. I have dropped my phones all the time so a phone case is a must,” one consumer told TechPlanet.

Others – mainly female – go so far to say that phone cases have become a part of their wardrobe: “I change my phone case depending on the season: such as a red case for the Chinese New Year; floral for spring time; bright colours in the summer, and textured ones in winter. I can’t change my phone all the time but changing the phone case can instantly lift your mood,” another said.

Most phone cases are affordable. In fact, the cheapest ones in China cost no more than Rmb2.9 (less than $0.50) on Taobao (and that sometimes includes shipping). One shopper admits that she buys at least one phone case a week. “A cover costs about the same as a cup of milk tea. It’s just 10 or 20 yuan, not very expensive. And when you get bored, you just throw it away,” she says nonchalantly.

Investors have also been taking heed. Since the latter part of 2021, brands like Casetify and MakerMaker, both of which specialise in fashionable higher-end phone cases, have secured venture capital funding. Jame Technology, the only listed domestic phone cover producer in China, reported that its annual revenue has reached Rmb2.8 billion. Jame is an OEM and ODM for smartphone makers like Huawei, which contributes almost half of its sales volume. It also sells covers under other brands like X-Doria on Amazon.

Given how fragmented China’s phone cases industry is, it is hard to estimate the size of the market. One piece of research suggests there are over two billion smartphones in circulation in China at the moment, so the market could be worth at least Rmb20 billion if each phone was covered by an Rmb10 casing. Small wonder then that tech entrepreneur Luo Yonghao, who founded the now-defunct smartphone brand Smartisan, once said: “Making phones is not as lucrative as making phone covers.”

Nevertheless, the low barriers to  entry also makes the competition very cutthroat. “At the moment, the market is still dominated by Huaqiangbei’s [an electronics market in Shenzhen] low-cost mobile phone cases. The business of selling mobile phone cases is not easy, there are many small brands and shanzhai [counterfeits or knock-offs]. Domestic producers have not yet created a recognisable brand of mobile phone cases. The consensus is that if a case price costs more than Rmb100, it is not easy to sell. Moreover, it is also easy to plagiarise designs, which renders it even harder for branding purposes,” says TechPlanet.

Manufacturers also gripe that as the upgrade cycle for new phones becomes shorter, it creates challenges: as phone sizes change they’re left with defunct inventory. “Apple makes at least four different models a year, and there are so many more Android phone models. Even before a certain model is sold out, the next one has already come out,” Han Bing, a protective case manufacturer, pointed out.


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