Vietnam catches Apple's eye

Bich Ngoc, who earns less than $60 a week and has a newborn son, cobbled together four months of savings to buy the latest iPhone so she could impress her colleagues who have older versions of the device.

"I like the iPhone because it is small, light and very delicate," said Ms Ngoc, a 24-year-old accountant in Hanoi who purchased the device last week. "Everyone seems a bit jealous."

Apple Inc is looking to consumers such as Ms Ngoc in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia willing to spend more than two months salary on an iPhone or iPad, as it seeks sales amid competition with Samsung Electronics Co. Apple is tapping FPT Corp, Vietnam's biggest listed information and communication-technology company, to roll out retail outlets in major cities as part of a regional push.

As part of its increased focus on Southeast Asia, Apple also has retailing relationships similar to the one with FPT with local chains in countries including iStudio in Thailand.

"One of the biggest moves Apple is making is in Southeast Asia," Tim Bajarin, president of technology consulting firm Creative Strategies Inc, based in San Jose, Calif, said in a phone interview. "If you look at the numbers, Android has passed Apple in smartphones, and it has made huge strides in tablets this year."

Smartphones based on Android, which Google Inc provides to hardware manufacturers for free, made up 78% of the global industry in 2013, up from 66% in 2012, according to Gartner Inc. Apple's iPhone was second with 16%, down from 19%. Apple's share of the global tablet market dropped to 36% in 2013 from 53% the year earlier, while Samsung jumped to 19% in 2013 from 7%, according to Gartner.

'Status Symbol'

Apple's push into Southeast Asia comes as the company forms a partnership with IBM to expand its mobile technology into the global corporate arena with business-specific software for iPads and iPhones. Apple aims to use its collaboration with IBM on data analysis, cloud and mobile technology to deepen its reach into businesses.

Apple products are popular in Vietnam, where a brand-savvy young population covets the instant recognition a slender iPhone brings, said Lam Nguyen, Ho Chi Minh City-based country director at International Data Corp. He predicts Vietnam smartphone sales will increase 56% to about 12 million units in 2014, and Apple will get a good chunk of that.

"There are more and cheaper alternatives out there," Mr Nguyen said in a phone interview. "This is about a relatively affordable status symbol. It's fashion."

Sales of iPhones in Vietnam soared 262% in Apple's fiscal first half ended March 29, chief executive officer Tim Cook said during a conference call with analysts April 23.

Michaela Wilkinson, a spokeswoman at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California declined to comment about the company's Vietnam and Southeast Asia retail strategy.

FPT's F.Studio stores, styled after Apple outlets in developed markets, feature minimalist interiors and English- speaking store clerks clad in black and trained by the iPhone- maker.

A sparsely appointed F.Studio with stark black and white tables displaying polished devices sits incongruously on a Hanoi street with blaring motorbikes and women in conical hats hawking lychees. Inside the store, sales staff handle the devices with the delicate touch of diamond sellers.

"Here I can trust the quality and get support from the staff," Vuong Ha, 41, said during a recent visit to the store. She held off buying her first iPhone until F.Studio opened in Hanoi for fear of buying a fake device, a common concern among Vietnamese consumers.

"I would not dare to spend this much money on an iPhone from another store," she said.

FPT last year qualified as the country's "premium" reseller, allowing it to sell Apple's range of products, from iPods to iPhones, CEO Bui Quang Ngoc said in an interview in his company's headquarters in Hanoi. For years Apple brushed off FPT's requests for a partnership, he said.

Apple's retail priorities were elsewhere, Mr Ngoc said. "Then they started to focus on Vietnam," he said. "It's a big change for Apple. Southeast Asia is a big market."

Regional Sales

Apple made 26% of its sales from Asia-Pacific in its fiscal second quarter, with 20% from the greater China region, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan. Japan, which isn't included in the Asia Pacific figures, represented 9 percent of Apple's sales.

FPT's relationship with Apple will "allow them to generate residual success off of Apple's popularity," Patrick Mitchell, head of institutional sales at VinaSecurities JSC, said in a phone interview in Ho Chi Minh City.

"We have worked with other vendors like Oracle, IBM, HP, Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, etc, but Apple is very special," Mr Ngoc said. "Apple people are very strict. It's not so easy working with Apple."

Before getting hired at F.Studio outlets, potential employees face multiple interviews then receive extensive training from FPT supervisors schooled by Apple representatives, FPT said.

Stringent demands of how its products are sold by overseas partners allows Apple to "control its brand," said Matthew Crabbe, Asia Pacific research director at Mintel Group Ltd in Kuala Lumpur.

Increasingly, the battle for brand loyalty is shifting to Southeast Asia, he said.

The Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board approved a preliminary application from Apple to open its first official store in Southeast Asia, the government said earlier this year.

"China is a big market, but it's also a competitive and maturing market," Crabbe said in a phone interview. "There is a growing consumer economy in Southeast Asia. Apple understands if you are going to get in, get in quick. You have to establish yourself, engage with consumers. Things move rapidly."

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