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Nokia star fades even in emerging markets

NEW DELHI/HELSINKI -- Nokia phones once took pride of place in Manish Khatri's Mumbai store, but now models made by Samsung Electronics get the limelight.

He has nothing against Nokia, he says, but it's better for business to push the more popular models.

That simple calculation is being made in thousands of stores across India and similar emerging markets, where Nokia's rivals used to be relative minnows.

For 14 years the world's biggest seller of mobile phones, it was overtaken by Korea's Samsung in the first quarter of this year, having already watched both Apple and Samsung leapfrog its lead in the lucrative smartphone segment last year.

In the popular narrative of Nokia's eclipse, it is Apple's iPhone that steals the light, but the company is also losing its shine in the basic phone market, which had been a reliable generator of profits and carried the promise of years of strong growth in emerging markets.

No more.

Its basic phone sales fell 16 percent in the first three months of 2012, and have fallen in four of the last five quarters, while competitors like China's ZTE and Huawei have been growing fast.

In India, the world's second-biggest mobile phone market with more than 900 million subscribers, Nokia's market share has halved in the three years to 2011, when it sold 31 percent of the total 183 million handsets sold, according to Indian researcher CyberMedia.

Analysts say it has failed to keep up with the changing tastes of the growing middle class, and, in a country where the thin-margin network operators don't tend to subsidize phones, is losing storeowners like Khatri, who influence buyers' choices.

“For dealers like us, we face a lot of problems from Nokia for getting even the basic (demonstration phone) dummies to show to the customer,” he said. “There is no push from the company.”

He said his store, which sells around 500 phones a month, is probably not a priority for Nokia, but Samsung has been sending staff to visit.

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In China, the world's largest cellphone market, operators have started to play a bigger role in selling phones, and that trend is working against Nokia.

“They prioritize domestic vendors over international companies,” said analyst Pete Cunningham from Canalys.

In January-March its sales there shrank 62 percent from a year ago. Its share of the market had dwindled to 24 percent last year from 39 percent two years earlier, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

In Africa, too, its market share slipped to 51 percent last year from 62 percent two years before. It's still ahead of rivals because of its superior distribution on the continent, says Neil Mawston at Strategy Analytics, but it has to act to arrest the decline.

“Nokia is drying up like a puddle in the sun and urgently needs new products to refill the puddle,” he said.

In the meantime, it is racking up losses, its shares have lost more than three quarters of their value in a year, and this week two agencies cut its credit rating to junk status.

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