Until recently, most customers at Jet City Device Repair in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood could expect to get a cracked phone screen or dead battery taken care of while they waited.
But since the coronavirus outbreak began in China, where a large share of the world’s spare screens, batteries and other spare parts are made, repairs can take days and even weeks for some phones and tablets.
Need a new screen for your iPhone XR or 11? Expect to wait at least a week, warns Siawash Popal, who manages the Wallingford shop and another location in Bellevue. Some Samsung devices, including the S8, S8 Plus, S10, and the Note 8 and 9, may take two weeks or more, he said.
“They’re not manufacturing, they’re not selling parts,” Popal said. Some components have either gotten much more expensive or can’t be found at any price, he said.
“We’ve had parts shortages in the past, but this is the first time we’ve seen production shutting down like this,” company founder Matt McCormick said. Before the outbreak, Jet City, which also has two locations in Chicago, expected sales to hit $3 million in 2020, or around 20% more than in 2019. McCormick hopes to make that up eventually, but “it’s going to be kind of pushed back.”
Jet City’s parts shortage shows how vulnerable something as common as a smartphone has become to global supply shocks .
Eighty-one percent of Americans have a smartphone, up from just 35% a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center. Many users rely so heavily on their phones for work and personal matters “that even an hour or two for a repair puts a strain on them,” said Cory Torres, general manager of One Hour Device Repair, a Redmond-based repair company that has three Seattle-area shops and a mobile unit and has also seen some parts shortages.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, shops like Jet City and One Hour could rely on an efficient network of U.S.-based parts warehouses; even if a Seattle shop lacked a part, a replacement was rarely more than 24 hours away. But those warehouses all depend on China and other foreign suppliers.
Torres, who has been in the repair business for seven years, estimates that 85% of the parts he uses come from factories in China, with much of the remainder from South Korea, Vietnam and Japan, which are also facing outbreak-related disruptions.
Device repair is a big business. Just to replace the nearly 6,000 smartphone screens that Americans break every hour costs $3.4 billion a year, according to a study by SquareTrade, which sells phone-protection plans. After factoring in dead batteries, damaged processors and other problems (phones dropped in toilets account for 1 in 4 repairs, SquareTrade said), the industry is expected to generate nearly $4 billion in revenue in 2020 in the United States alone, up 20% since 2012, according to IBISWorld, a research firm.
The device-repair industry extends far beyond the repair services offered by phone manufacturers and phone carriers. In the Seattle area, there are scores of repair options. They include national franchises like uBreakiFix, which has 557 locations in North America, local shops like Jet City and One Hour Device Repair, and even home-based technicians advertising on Craigslist.
“A hundred stores in the Seattle area fix an iPhone,” said McCormick, a former Microsoft engineer who founded Jet City 11 years ago after teaching himself to fix his own broken phone, a T-Mobile Dash. “There’s one probably within five minutes of you.”
But, McCormick acknowledges, all of the device-repair businesses depend almost entirely on a global supply chain that is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of global commerce.
Repair shops are no strangers to those risks. In 2011, Apple reportedly tried to crack down on third-party repair shops by switching from Phillips-head screws to five-point screws in its iPhone 4 phone — a move that fizzled when Chinese companies began making thousands of cheap five-point screwdrivers, McCormick recalls.
Other supply-chain snarls have been harder to untangle. Since early 2019, tariffs on imported Chinese electronics, the result of trade tensions between the United States and China, have made some spare parts more expensive — cost increases that some repair shops have tried to absorb rather than risk losing business.
Costs from the coronavirus may be larger and not so readily absorbed. Concerns about potential parts shortages surfaced in early February as the Chinese government delayed the reopening of factories idled during Lunar New Year festivities.
At some bigger device-repair companies, which work directly with phone manufacturers, parts concerns remain minimal. Joe Garner, manager at the Lake Stevens branch of uBreakiFix, one of four in the Seattle area, said they’ve seen parts shortages only for the iPad 7.
It’s often a different story for smaller players. Many rely heavily on aftermarket parts that are often made by third-party manufacturers in China. Many repair shops typically buy these parts from distributors whose own inventories may now be depleted.
Jet City, for example, had built up an extra large inventory to prepare for the Chinese factory closings during the Lunar New Year. But as some items have run low, Popal has been combing online catalogs for additional parts — often finding that vendors with parts have raised the prices substantially.
The price for the iPad 7 screen went from $50 to $110, Popal said. In other cases, vendors were demanding “twice or three times as much for the part than I could buy the entire device used,” he said.
Both Popal and Torres say most customers have been understanding. Faced with higher prices or unavailability, some are deciding they can live with a cracked screen until supplies normalize and prices come back down, which Torres thinks may not be until early April.
But for customers who need their phones for work, or whose phones have become the repository for irreplaceable documents and data, it’s sometimes worth the higher price.
For Torres and McCormick, who get a kick out of helping consumers extend the life of their devices, the parts shortage has been disappointing.
“There’s no reason to buy a new phone every two years,” said McCormick, who worries about the sustainability of the phone industry’s business model. “We frequently fix iPhone 5s that are, like, five years old,” he said. “We fix iPads for schools that are eight years old.”
But fixing those devices, McCormick said, “still depends on a global supply chain to make that happen.”