Windows touchscreen laptops, Chromebooks save back-to-school

Sales down, but without cheaper touch-ready laptops and Chromebooks, would have been much worse, says NPD

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.

back to school PC sales
Windows notebooks accounted for a majority of sales during the back-to-school season in the U.S. (Data: NPD Group.)
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