Mac sales slide in January, says NPD

Apple is performing below the industry average, says analyst, who blames pricing

The worsening economy hit Apple Inc. hard last month as its U.S. retail sales fell 6% compared with January 2008, research company The NPD Group Inc. said today.

"The big news is that Apple performed worse than the rest of the business," said NPD analyst Stephen Baker. "This is the first time in a long time that Apple has underperformed the market."

That news comes on the heels of a December during which Apple's sales were flat year to year, and a November that saw unit sales fall 1% compared with November 2007, according to NPD.

However, Apple still posted record revenue numbers for the final three months of 2008. When it released its financial figures four weeks ago, the company said it had sold 2.5 million Macs during 2008's final calendar quarter, a 9% increase over the same period in 2007.

In January 2009, however, Apple's decline was sharper than that for Windows-based machines, according to Baker. He blamed Apple's high prices.

"It has much more to do with pricing than with just netbooks," Baker said, referring to the category of smaller and low-priced laptops that typically run Windows XP. "There's been some switching even among Apple buyers to the $999 [MacBook]. That's taken some sales away from the next tier up."

In October, when Apple launched its new all-aluminum "unibody" MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops, it also lowered the price of the older plastic-cased MacBook by $100 to $999. The lowest-priced MacBook unibody model, however, is priced at $1,299.

"The higher-end stuff seems to be holding up better," Baker noted, pointing to the MacBook Pro line of laptops, which are priced starting at $1,999 to $2,799. "It's in the middle where it's soft."

Apple has been criticized by some analysts for not jumping into the netbook market, but the company has so far declined to offer an entry. In October, CEO Steve Jobs, who is currently out on medical leave, dismissed the idea of an Apple netbook. "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that," Jobs said at the time.

But there may be signs that Apple is rethinking that position. After a recent meeting with top Apple officials, including Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook -- who's in charge of the company's day-to-day operations while Jobs is out -- analyst Toni Sacconaghi of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. said the executives had hinted at new ideas related to netbooks.

On the desktop front, where Apple's sales plummeted by 36% in December, Macs continued to do poorly, Baker said. "Windows desktop sales were down too, but not as much as Macs," he said.

The brightest spot in U.S. retail sales was for what Baker dubbed "standard" PC notebooks, including all the laptops that don't fit in the netbook category. "Sales there were up," Baker said, noting that price was the driving factor.

"Nothing's doing great," said Baker, "but Apple was down a little bit more than PCs were down. That's the real story for the month."

During 2008, Apple regularly outpaced industry growth rates. In the first three months of last year, in fact, Apple's sales grew 10 times faster then the U.S. average, according to estimates by Gartner Inc.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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