In 2015 Xiaomi held the title for number-one phone manufacturer in China, but by Q2 2016 IDC was reporting plummeting year-on-year profits of 38.4 percent. The company previously known as China's Apple (and which still has higher market share in China than does Apple) has suffered in the face of enormous market growth from rivals Oppo and Vivo, which now sit just below Huawei at the top of the leaderboard.
Given the drop in profits, it seems almost strange that it was in 2016 we began to see Xiaomi gradually edging itself closer to becoming a global brand outside of China. Under global vice president Hugo Barra the company has entered large, profitable markets such as India, and in 2017 we should see its phones officially go on sale in the US. Plus, in January 2017 Xiaomi will for the first time have an exhibition at the Las Vegas CES tradeshow. Consumers are beginning to hear more and more about Xiaomi, and yet getting hold of its products hasn't got a great deal easier.
Some have suggested selling Xiaomi phones in the UK causes a problem because of potential disputes over patent infringement. On the subject of Xiaomi's alleged copying of the iPhone Apple's Jony Ive was once quoted as saying "It is theft and it is lazy. I don't think it is okay at all." It will be interesting to see how this Xiaomi-Apple tension pans out in the US next year.
How to buy Xiaomi devices in the UK
Leaving aside Xiaomi's key markets in China and India, and soon the US, how exactly do you buy Xiaomi phones, tablets and accessories in the UK?
In May 2015 it was reported that Xiaomi had opened its shop doors to a UK audience, but for accessories only. Xiaomi had enlisted B2X to handle after-sales care in the European market, including the UK, Germany and France.
Hugo Barra was quoted saying: "With B2X’s global reach and local on-the-ground expertise, we will be able to offer superior after sales service to our customers in Europe. The unique technology and smart service platform offered by B2X will help us adapt to customer needs quickly and effectively in this new, critical market."
So far so good. But when you search for the UK Xiaomi store online you get two options: confusingly, mi.com/en/store will ship only to the US, while xiaomi-mi.co.uk redirects you to the NIS Store for purchasing products. This in itself is disconcerting, but we're more pained by the inflated product prices and extortionate delivery costs. Fortunately, there is an easier, cheaper, less scary way to buy Xiaomi devices in the UK.
We've been reviewing Xiaomi devices for some time now, and the vast majority of these are shipped to us by GearBest.com. GearBest is a Chinese online retailer that offers free shipping to the UK and elsewhere. Though it refers to itself as Chinese wholesalers, GearBest and its ilk are perhaps better described as grey-market importers (which isn't as dodgy as it might at first sound).
The grey market is not illegal. It is sometimes referred to as a parallel market, which is in fact a clearer representation of what it is. The grey market is a channel through which goods are imported by distributors not authorised by the manufacturer. It allows UK consumers to purchase products that are not intended to be sold in the UK market, and at the lower prices typically paid overseas.
GearBest is not your only option. We've previously used Geekbuying, Coolicool and TomTop, and there are others including the likes of Alibaba and TinyDeal too. All offer much the same prices and the same policies, though you should note prices can fluctuate daily so it may pay to shop around.
We've covered what to look out for in greater detail in our article on buying grey-market tech, but the key things to note are that you may be asked to pay import duty on products shipped from China, that you may have to wait several weeks for your item to be delivered, and that complaints procedures when something goes wrong aren't necessarily the same as those we enjoy here in the UK. If you're buying a smartphone, you should also check it is supported by your network. In our experience most Xiaomi phones will not support 800MHz 4G LTE in the UK, which rules out 4G connectivity via O2 and GiffGaff.
Aside from buying from a Chinese wholesaler or grey market importer, in the UK you can often find Xiaomi products available on Amazon or eBay. There's nothing wrong with going down this route, but be sure to check out who and from where you are actually buying the device before handing over your money.
Poll: Would you buy a Xiaomi phone in the UK?
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