Mac sales outlook sags under weight of recession

Fewer people planning to buy Apple as netbooks gain ground, survey shows

The short-term outlook for sales of Apple Inc.'s Macintosh computers has significantly slipped in the past month, indicating that the company isn't immune to the recession, a market research company said today.

According to ChangeWave Research, 27% of the U.S. consumers surveyed who said that they plan to buy a laptop in the next 90 days said that their new purchase would be a Mac. Apple's slice of the increasingly shrinking pool of buyers was down 6 percentage points from a similar survey done by ChangeWave in November 2008.

"[That's] our weakest visibility reading for Apple laptops in nearly two years," said Paul Carton, ChangeWave's research director.

Recent sales also were weaker than a year ago, Carton said. Among the people who bought a computer in the past 90 days, 22% said they bought a Mac laptop, and 17% confirmed they'd purchased a Mac desktop. Both numbers were down four percentage points from the November survey.

ChangeWave's data echoed findings from retail market researchers at NPD Group Inc., which said Mac sales were flat in December compared with sales in December 2007.

For its part, Apple said it sold 9% more Macs in 2008's final calendar quarter than it did in the same three-month period in 2007.

"Apple has been caught in the recession," said Carton. "Its projected growth is just a fraction of what it was last year at this time, and also the year before that."

Simply put, said Carton, Apple's revamped MacBooks -- which the company introduced in October -- "didn't explode out of the box." And that means the company might be looking at a tougher quarter than it and financial experts have figured. "Is it going to meet its greatly reduced expectations? February will tell. But I think they got off to a rougher start in January than they expected."

It's typical, of course, for Mac sales -- all PC sales, for that matter -- to dip after the holidays. But Carton stressed that this year's early decline is deeper than in the past. "The overall demand has turned significantly weaker than we've seen in a very long time," he said.

In January 2008, for example, ChangeWave's survey showed that the percentage of people planning to buy a Mac laptop actually climbed to 33% from November 2007's 29%.

Part of Apple's problem, Carton said, is because of the increased popularity of "netbooks," the term given to low-priced, small notebooks that cost less than $500 -- sometimes, considerably less.

ChangeWave's latest survey, conducted from Jan. 5 to 12 with nearly 3,500 U.S. consumers, found that almost one in five laptop buyers (19%) said they had purchased a netbook in the past three months. About one in seven (14%) of future notebook buyers said they planned to pick up a netbook in the next 90 days.

Apple does not have a laptop that competes in the netbook category, a fact that other analysts have questioned for several months now, and something Carton seized on as well today.

"The beneficiaries are manufacturers who offer netbooks, including Acer, Asus and more recently Dell and Hewlett-Packard, among others," he said. "But the trend toward netbooks is not good news for Apple."

And if Apple continues to ignore the netbook market, Carton said it could bring the company even more grief. "We're seeing a long-term secular transformation in how the U.S. consumer spends," he said. "Even when things start to improve, in this new environment, people are going to be more conscious of bad [financial] behavior. In the long term, that represents an obstacle to the high end, which is Apple."

On the other hand, Carton added, "Apple has proved amazingly resilient over the years. I would never bet against them in the long term."

Additional surveys that ChangeWave has in the works for this month will offer a more accurate picture of the U.S. economy, consumer spending plans and, specifically, both business and consumer computer-buying trends.

"It's the February numbers that will tell the story," said Carton, stressing that this month's data will better reflect reality. "The whole change, of the new year and the Obama administration, did have a one-off impact," Carton said. "January's numbers show signs of stabilization. Things still suck, but the rate of decline is slowing.

"But before anyone thinks there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we have to take a look at the February spending numbers," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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