Dumb phones represent a small portion of US handset sales, but may be growing in popularity with increasingly burned-out Gen Z.
Globally, consumers are continuing to shift toward purchasing premium smartphones; in 2023 premium smartphones were expected to capture one fourth of global smartphone sales and 60% of global smartphone revenue. However, a countertrend may be emerging in the US as Gen Z adults have become increasingly interested in ditching their smartphone for “dumb phones” (AKA feature phones). Google Trends data shows that searches for the term “dumb phone” have steadily increased since 2020:
Additionally, at time of writing, the #BringBackFlipPhones tag on TikTok is currently sitting at 59.8 million views. What does this mean in terms of sales?
At the end of 2023, US sales of feature phones were expected to reach 2.8 million units in 2023, with continued demand through 2024. While this accounts for “only little more than 2%” of US handset sales, new hardware features like eSIM and NFC enablement may help to make Gen Z’s desire for digital detox more accessible. However, analyst opinion about the prospects for feature phone sales in 2024 remain mixed — some have said they could see growth to 5% of the entire market over the next several years, while Statista predicts that feature phone sales will fall to 2.1 million units a year by 2028.
What’s behind Gen Z’s interest in dumb phones?
While it’s puzzling to older generations, Gen Z’s nostalgia for the 2000s (a decade they either didn’t experience or have very little memory of) is undeniably a factor. Dumb phones wouldn’t even be the first technology that Gen Z has nostalgically brought back from the grave, alongside “retro” digital cameras, Polaroids, and Game Boys.
However, it’s likely that nostalgia is taking a back seat to several much more compelling factors impacting that impact the health and well-being of Gen Z adults, such as:
- Price: For a generation as cash-strapped as Gen Z, it’s hard to argue with the price point of most feature phones (typically $20-50 with a prepaid carrier and $50-100 unlocked).
- Durability and battery life: dumb phones can go much longer on one charge, and are much less likely to need replacing after being dropped or otherwise mishandled.
- Privacy and security: Smartphones are full of apps that expose personal data. Additionally, in late 2023, it was revealed (via a letter sent by a US Senator to Attourney General Merrick Garland) that some governments have making requests to Apple and Google for push notification data that can be used to spy on smartphone users.
- Sustainability: Nokia (which held more than 90% of the feature phone market in 2022) introduced “repairable phones” in 2023 in an effort to “keep phones in people’s hands for longer”.
- The need to digital detox: The average US adult spends seven hours per day on handheld screens. For Gen Z, much of that time is spent on social media, which is known to have negative impacts on mental and physical health. It’s not surprising, then, that 54% of younger adults say that constantly being on their devices is bad for their wellbeing, and that 51% in that same study said they daydream about life without social media.
Dumb phones remove the temptation of access and have allowed some former tech addicts to drastically reduce their screen time. 21-year-old Caitlin Kunz’s video in which she purchased and bedazzled a dumb phone (a change that enabled her to cut her screen time from 12 hours per day to three) has ironically garnered more than 3.2 million views on TikTok.
So will feature phones be a genuine trend? Or are dumb phones just another phablet?
It’s still too early to say whether the optimists or pessimists will prove correct. However, either way this will be an interesting trend to watch as Gen Z continues to gain in economic influence.