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Phablets Sound the Death Knell of Russia's Printed Media Sector

Belatedly catching up with global trends, outsized smartphones are the new must-have items for Russian commuters.

Photo: Phablets: Bigger than a phone, smaller than a tablet and bad news for Pravda.
Phablets: Bigger than a phone, smaller than a tablet and bad news for Pravda.
Photo: Phablets: Bigger than a phone, smaller than a tablet and bad news for Pravda.
Phablets: Bigger than a phone, smaller than a tablet and bad news for Pravda.

Just 10 years back, Russia's printed media sector had a vibrancy and bustle that shamed its counterparts across Europe, with the digital spectre having already lain waste to newspaper, magazine and book sales in many Western nations. Over the past two years, though, a clear change has been apparent. Now it is rare indeed to see even a solitary newspaper vendor the country's commuters.

The arrival of free Wi-Fi on the Moscow and St Petersburg metros, widespread 4G coverage and the introduction of more affordable monthly plans by mobile operators have all combined to pretty much kill off Russia's printed media. Now – in line with Western Europe, the US and much of Asia – Russians tend to get all their news, gossip and best-seller fixes from a digital device.

It's no wonder, then, that it is the outsized smartphones – those with screens measuring five inches plus and commonly known as 'phablets' (phones + tablets) – that now account for more than 50% of purchases in the sector. As a sign of the accelerated growth in this particular segment, back in 2015, only 30% of smartphone owners had phablets.

Phablet ownership really took off over the summer, spurred by the stabilisation of the rouble and an accompanying rise in consumer confidence. Long postponed purchases were suddenly prioritised and phablets became, almost overnight, the must-have accessory for the commuting Russian.

Although growth has clearly been led by the phablets, the overall smartphone sector has enjoyed something of a mini-bounce, with sales of all handsets up by 3%. Those handsets with screens smaller than five inches, however, have lost market share to their more commodious cousins, despite attempts to jumpstart sales through high-level promotions and drastically reduced prices.

Despite the recent moderate upturn, Russia's ongoing economic crisis is still seen as having a considerable impact on consumer behaviour. In fact, some analysts believe that it is a budgetary imperative that has driven the growth of the phablet sector, with buyers keen to save money by settling for a digital unit that combines the functions of two devices – a phone and a tablet. For others, the popularity of the sector is more down to the logical extension of two existing trends – smartphone screens getting bigger, while laptop screens get smaller. Phablets, then, represent a natural compromise, while still capitalising on the far wider availability of both 4G and Wi-Fi.

As well as having an impact on the popularity of smaller handsets, phablets are also seen as having eaten into tablet sales, particularly those units with a screen size of less than 8.9 nine inches. Overall, Samsung and Lenovo phablets have proven to be most popular with Russian consumers, partly due to their relatively low prices (around US$200).

The sector has also been given a particular boost by its popularity among Russia's taxi drivers. They are, apparently, now seen as indispensable by those drivers using Uber, as well as Yandex-Taxi and Gett-Taxi, two domestic taxi-hailing apps. In recognition of this, Megafon, Russia's third-largest mobile operator, has released a phablet optimised for use by taxi drivers, with all the major hailing apps coming pre-installed.

Leonid Orlov, Moscow Consultant

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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