Chinese television makers, including TCL Corp. (000100) and Hisense Electric Co. (600060), are accelerating their push into the U.S., marketing cut-rate sets and advanced technology as they try to grab share from Japanese and Korean competitors.
The companies are looking to make a splash at the biggest U.S. electronics trade show this week in Las Vegas as they try to raise their visibility with American consumers and distributors. TCL, the Huizhou-based manufacturer of TVs and DVD players, is doubling its space at the event to show off TVs using Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software, while Qingdao-based Hisense is increasing its exhibition footprint and introducing its first U.S. print and TV ad campaign.
The push will raise pressure on stalwarts like Sony Corp. (6758) and Sharp Corp. (6753) that are struggling to turn a profit. It will also offer potential benefits for consumers looking for less- expensive sets, even with advanced features like Web connections and apps. China’s market leaders, such as TCL, offer products that sell for 30 percent less than leading brands.
“It’s our way of showing the North American market that we are a major player in the world and we intend to be a major player in North America,” said JoAnne Foist, the U.S. marketing director for Hisense.
While China’s electronics manufacturers dominate at home, they lack the distribution and brand recognition of more- established competitors in the $200 billion-plus U.S. market. The absence this year of Google’s Motorola, Eastman Kodak Co. (EKDKQ) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) opened floor space at CES, giving the Chinese more visibility to highlight their products.
Microsoft, which typically opens the show, last year ended its participation, saying its product news generally doesn’t align with the event’s January timing.
Hisense has said it plans to double U.S. sales to $600 million this year from 2012. The company grabbed Microsoft space at the International Consumer Electronics Show, a prominent spot near the entrance to the Las Vegas Convention Center’s Central Hall that once showcased Windows devices and the Xbox game console. With prime access to more than 150,000 attendees, Hisense will use 9,600 square feet to convince U.S. industry pros that its TVs and appliances are ready for prime time.
“To be a truly international company, we need to be in the United States,” Foist said. “We need to be successful in the United States.”
Challenges in understanding U.S. culture and buying behavior have kept Chinese manufacturers from making more headway, said Richard Doherty, a consumer electronics analyst and principal of Envisioneering Group.
“If you want to reach the North American market, it’s not just taking out a booth and showing a product,” Doherty said. “It takes several failures and acquiring some very expensive, high-priced talent with familiarity of the market to get over that learning curve.”
The U.S., the largest consumer market, offers rich potential. Sales of consumer electronics were projected to grow 5.9 percent to $206.5 billion in 2012 and 4.5 percent to $215.8 billion this year, according to Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association. Sales in China, the No. 2 marketplace, stand at $114 billion.
Chinese manufacturers benefit from lower production costs they can pass on to consumers. A 50-inch Hisense LED set with Wi-Fi and a Web browser was selling for $700 on the TigerDirect website last week. A Toshiba model the same size, lacking Web and Wi-Fi, was $899. Samsung offered one for $997.
One hurdle has been establishing service networks, which is important in convincing distributors like Best Buy (BBY) and Amazon that they can support the products, said Tim Bajarin, principal at researcher Creative Strategies. To gain customers a decade ago, Korean manufacturers like Samsung and LG adopted liberal return policies that required big infrastructure investments. In the U.S., Hisense will need to surpass the level of customer service it has in China, Bajarin said.
Service and distribution are a focus for Hisense, according to Foist. Shoppers have come to expect both design and rock- bottom prices, she said.
“We don’t need to highlight the fact we’re made in China or based in China because, quite frankly, the consumer doesn’t care,” Foist said. “They want good designs, great value and the latest technology.”
Chinese manufacturers that satisfy U.S. consumer preferences for large, relatively cheap TVs have a chance of winning share, said analyst David Hsieh of NPD DisplaySearch.
“Another key is supply-chain management, which all the Japanese brands are not very good at,” Hsieh said.
TCL, which sells TVs under its own name after dropping the RCA label, became the fifth-largest global supplier of LCD TVs in the first half of 2012, according to NPD DisplaySearch, marking the first time a Chinese producer has made the top five. Its U.S. sales were $71.3 million in 2011.
At CES, the company will show TCL MoVo, a set using the Android operating system and a technology called Personal Box Office that recognizes individual family members and tailors content to their preferences. It plans to promote such products in movie product placements, according to a statement.
The handset division of Huawei Technologies Co., China’s largest maker of equipment for phone networks, is sponsoring the annual CES press breakfast and taking higher-profile space nearer the front of the convention center’s South Hall. Huawei has faced Congressional allegations its network equipment may enable Chinese spying, allegations the company has denied.
Shenzhen-based smartphone and equipment maker ZTE Corp. (000063), another CES exhibitor, said on Dec. 12 it plans to invest $30 million on U.S. research and development with local partners, on top of five R&D offices and a distribution center it already operates. The company plans to introduce a new handset for worldwide sale at CES, according to an outside spokeswoman.
Last year, about 675 CES exhibitors and 1,568 attendees hailed from China, up from 490 and 1,338, respectively, the year before. The show’s importance to the Chinese is unparalleled as they seek to expand, according to Bajarin.
“This is a world market for all sorts of digital products now in the billions of dollars, and CES has become a worldwide launching point for China as it did for the Japanese and Koreans,” Bajarin said.
If the upstarts can gain traction in the U.S., they’re poised to inflict damage on Sony, Sharp and Pioneer, which are struggling to stem losses and develop standout products, along with industry leaders such as Suwon, South Korea-based Samsung Electronics Co. (005930), the top seller of TVs and mobile phones.
Tokyo-based Sony, Samsung and the other brand leaders are responding by selling so-called smart products, linked to mobile phones and tablets that let consumers remotely dry clothes, wash dishes, record a TV show, or even get an alert when the wine in the refrigerator runs low.
“Customers don’t always want the cheapest product,” said James Fishler, senior vice president of marketing for the U.S. unit of Seoul-based LG Electronics Inc. (066570), South Korea’s second- largest electronics maker. “They want the product that delivers on the promise of making people’s lives better and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
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