Touch-enabled Windows notebooks and Chrome OS-powered Chromebooks contributed to better-than-expected PC sales during the back-to-school period and may hint at a less dismal holiday-selling season than once thought, a retail analyst said today.
"The trajectory of the numbers means that the holidays should be more aligned with back-to-school than with the [gloomier] projections of earlier this year," said Stephen Baker of the NPD Group.
This wasn't a turn-around, Baker cautioned, not by a long shot, but things could have been much worse. "The point we would make is that the talk that no one wants PCs and that they're on a road to ruin is not what we see in the sales numbers," Baker said. "This is a mature market struggling to find its place in a changing industry, but it still has a pretty solid base."
Even so, the back-to-school stretch in the U.S. -- from June 30 to Sept. 7 -- saw PC sales down 2.5% compared to the same period in 2012. But the decline was slightly better than the 4% drop that NPD measured in the U.S. retail market during the first half of 2013.
Call Baker optimistically uneasy. "While these results are better than ... the first half of the year, any declines in the crucial back-to-school period leave reason to be concerned for the upcoming holiday season," he said.
There were some clear trends during back-to-school, however.
Windows notebooks equipped with touchscreens accounted for a quarter of all sales, an encouraging sign since Windows 8 -- the Microsoft operating system launched a year ago -- relies heavily on touch and has been largely panned on non-touch systems.
Microsoft executives have blamed the shortage of touch notebooks for Windows 8's lack of progress. If touch PCs had been more prevalent, they have argued, Windows 8 would have gotten out of the gate faster. And once touch was more widely available, the new operating system would power a rebound in PC sales.
While the jury is still out on that, more touch notebooks are coming on line and at lower prices. A third of all touchscreen notebooks sold during the back-to-school season were priced under $500, which drove down the ASP (average selling price) from $715 in the first half of 2013 to $646, said NPD.
"The rapid rollout of under $500 devices put touch much more aggressively in front of the key back-to-school consumer and created incremental demand," Baker said.
Another trend that softened the overall decline in sales was the Chromebook movement. Powered by Google's browser-based Chrome OS, and made by Samsung, Asus and Lenovo, 175,000 Chromebooks sold during the back-to-school season, said Baker, representing 3.3% of the total of 5.3 million personal computers sold during the period.
"This starts to move the needle for Google," Baker said, "and shows what the opportunities [for Chromebooks] are beyond just at home. It clearly shows some of Google's ambitions going forward."
Most important, said Baker, the Chromebook trend provided a "solid base of competition to the Windows products at the entry-level price points."
Chromebooks should be even more aggressive rivals to Windows PCs in the near future as Acer, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba launch models equipped with Intel's latest Core i5 processors, dubbed "Haswell," in time for the holidays.
"If you think about the opportunity for low-cost Chromebooks that have touch, what with development and the ecosystem [of Chrome OS] and Android, it'll be interesting to see what happens with Chromebooks and large-screen Android tablets," said Baker, hinting that he thought the two might merge at some point.
"Consumers have been skittish about things that they're not familiar with [like Chromebooks], but Google has spent a lot of money at retail. Most Best Buys have a dedicated person who works that Chromebook end cap, for example," Baker said.
The third platform in the back-to-school sales war, Apple's OS X, also slipped in volume, he said, dropping 3% this year compared to 2012. Mac notebooks accounted for 20.3% of all systems sold during the season.
According to NPD, MacBook ASPs plunged during the summer, falling from $1,445 to $1,286 because customers focused on lower-priced MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros, and because of Apple price cuts in February and additional Best Buy discounts during back-to-school that made starting prices lower than last year.
Both Apple and Microsoft ran back-to-school promotions to juice sales, with the former handing out $100 App Store gift cards and the latter discounting a wide range of PCs and tablets by 10% for college students.
Baker said it was impossible to gauge the effectiveness of the promotions. "You only see a problem if you stopped them," he said. "But no one would have been foolhardy enough to reduce or eliminate them, not in this climate."
NPD estimated that during the back-to-school season, Apple sold 1.08 million MacBook notebooks and Microsoft's OEM partners sold 3.08 million Windows laptops. Approximately 959,000 desktops were sold during the period.
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