Consumer advice

Apple and Dell Bright Spots in Gloomy Tech Spending Forecast

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Consumer spending plans suffered a "massive breakdown" when the economy tanked last month, but Apple Inc. will come out of the downturn in much better shape than its competitors, a market research firm said today.

The new MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks that Apple unveiled in mid-October look like a hit, according to Paul Carton, ChangeWave's research director. "The MacBooks are off to a good start," said Carlton, noting that of the nearly 3,700 U.S. consumers polled in late October and early November, 7% said they were "somewhat likely" or "very likely" to buy one of the aluminum-cased laptops over the holidays.

Slightly less -- 6% of those surveyed -- said they were likely to purchase one of the white plastic MacBooks, which were retained by Apple but reduced in price by $100, to $999.

"We do see Apple's numbers looking better going forward, over the next 90 days," Carton said.

Of the consumers who said that they were planning on buying a personal computer in the next three months, Apple garnered 33% of those who said it would be a laptop and 27% of the buyers who said they would purchase a desktop. Those numbers, Carton pointed out, were above September's results -- which were 29% for laptops and 26% for desktops -- but below August's. They were also two percentage points lower than the same time last year.

Apple's loss has been Dell Inc.'s gain, Carton said: 33% of consumers who said they would buy a notebook in the next three months said that they would buy a Dell, while 37% who were planning to purchase a desktop pointed to Dell. The latter figure was 11 percentage points higher than in September.

"Dell has had a big pop in desktops," Carton said, "and that seems to be connected to a search for value." Prospective buyers whom ChangeWave interviewed used the phrases "good value," "competitive pricing" and "great value" in describing Dell's offerings.

The problem, however, is that while Dell and Apple may have seen their numbers climb, the numbers of people who said that they would buy were at historic lows for this time of year. Carton blamed the economy for the missing bounce that consumer electronics, including PCs, typically receive in November.

"There's been a massive breakdown in consumer spending plans going forward," Carton said. "We've never seen anything like it."

According to ChangeWave's polling, 59% of U.S. consumers said they were planning on spending less in the next 90 days, an increase from 52% in September. Meanwhile, the number who said they were planning on spending more dropped from 18% that month to just 10% in November.

Saying that "it's going to be a very tough holiday season," the preference of potential buyers for Apple and Dell must be weighed against this increasingly smaller pool of consumers willing to part with their money. "It's almost like a split decision in the short term," Carton said. "It looks like Apple has some very solid demand, but you have to put those numbers in perspective. They're in a diminishing pie overall."

ChangeWave's numbers bore that out. Just 8% of those surveyed said that they planned to buy a laptop in the next 90 days, while only 6% said that they expected to purchase a desktop in that same period. While both were unchanged from September, they were also both down from the same time a year ago. In November 2007, 11% of those polled said that they planned to get a laptop, and 8% said they planned to buy a desktop.

Longer term, however, Carton said Apple will come out stronger than ever. That's partly because of its ability to retain buyers, even in the face of terrible economic conditions, but also because of its iPhone, which he characterized as a "mini-computer" in its own right. In ChangeWave's polling, the iPhone came out the clear winner for those who said they were planning on buying a smart phone in the next three months: Apple's device accounted for 41% of the total.

"Apple will clearly come out of this as the biggest tree in the forest," Carton said. "They'll be in extraordinary shape compared to everyone else when things improve. I don't think that Apple can escape the enormity of this downturn in the short run, but in the big picture, I think [these numbers] are wonderful news for Apple.

"It's not easy to increase market share in one of the worst spending environments in years," Carton concluded.

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