PC Sales Up for 2008, but Barely

Personal computer sales managed the barest of growth rates in the fourth quarter of 2008 even in the face of a worldwide economic slowdown.

The U.S. saw the worst damage done, but even then it wasn’t enough to cause a year-over-year decline.

Technology research firm Gartner said Wednesday that fourth quarter 2008 worldwide PC sales reached 78.1 million, up just 1.1 percent over the same period in 2007. For the year, worldwide PC sales rose 6.1 percent.

For the year, worldwide PC shipments totaled 302.2 million units, a 10.9 percent increase from 2007, with almost all of that coming in the first three quarters of the year. The top five ranking remained unchanged compared to 2007, with HP on top, followed by a resurgent Dell.

The fourth quarter U.S. sales, however, were ugly. Sales in 4Q08 fell 10.1 percent compared to 4Q07, from 17.3 million units to 15.6 million units, and that was with decent showings on the high and low end of things. It’s no surprise, given all the component makers who have warned of sales slowdowns.

Mika Kitagawa, principal analyst for Gartner’s client computing group, said the growth came in two places: Acer and Asus with their netbook products, and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), which sells a premium, high-end product. Acer was up 31.1 percent in Q4 over 2007 numbers and Asus was the number six vendor in the U.S. thanks to its Eee-PC, while Apple was up 8.3 percent in Q4.

Also making a strong showing was Toshiba, which only sells notebooks. Thanks to the strong sales in notebooks, it managed a 20 percent gain year-over-year. HP (NYSE: HPQ), the market leader, was up just 3.5 percent and number two, Dell (NASDAQ: DELL), was down 5.9 percent.

The problems of the U.S. are dragging down the whole world, said Kitagawa. “Q3 in the U.S. wasn’t great but other regions were okay. This quarter was the one where the effects were spread all over. When the U.S. has a cold it spreads around the world,” she told InternetNews.com.

Kitagawa said Dell’s decline came from its dependence on the U.S. market and on the business market, whereas HP is more global and has a stronger retail channel presence than Dell, which has just started to build a channel effort.

“I would imagine the professional market would affect both HP and Dell if people don’t replace PCs as fast as they normally do,” she said. “The growth has been in consumer mobile. Dell is still is much more dependent on the U.S. market compared to HP, and the U.S. took the worst decline in this quarter.

Acer’s strength came from mini notebooks and aggressive PC pricing. Apple, on the other hand, has the highest priced computers on the market and it still managed a decent showing for itself.

“They are defying the slowdown,” said Kitagawa. “They already saw a slowdown in the education market in the third quarter. For the consumer side, they introduced their own low-end system [the $100 cut on the MacBook], and that’s not a low end system. So they really need to cut the price if they want,” she said.

But she adds, “I don’t know how much they will do it or how fast. I think they are looking at the market condition at the moment and have to make a decision. Or maybe they want to preserve their margin and don’t want to do anything drastic.”

For now, Gartner is projecting a 4.5 percent worldwide annual growth for 2009, but it will likely have to be revised. For the U.S., Gartner expects PC sales to contract 7.4 percent in 2009.

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