Although planned purchases of PCs by US consumers are at their lowest level since 2002, Apple should be able to "muddle through" on the strength of its MacBook laptop line, a market research company said Thursday.
But sales of Apple's ageing iMac desktop line look grimmer than ever over the next three months.
According to ChangeWave Research, 30 percent of the US consumers who said that they plan to buy a laptop in the next 90 days will give the new purchase nod to a Mac, an increase of 3 percentage points from ChangeWave's survey last month. Apple's slice of the desktop buyers pool, however, was down 2 percentage points to 26 percent, which prompted Paul Carton, ChangeWave's research director, to call it a "wash" for Apple.
Even though the future purchase plan survey showed Apple treading water - not sinking, as it did last month - Carton said the numbers looked bad for the company. "Going forward, we see a flat-to-down environment for Apple," he said.
The reason is simple. "We're looking here at Apple's share within a continuing declining market," said Carton.
That was illustrated by the survey results for overall PC spending plans by consumers. Of the more than 3,100 people polled during the first week of February, only four percent said they would buy a desktop computer in the next 90 days, down a percentage point from January's survey. Just six percent said they will buy a laptop, unchanged from the month before.
"Planned PC buying remains at the lowest level ever recorded in a ChangeWave survey," Carton said. A year ago, ChangeWave's polls pegged laptop and desktop PC planned sales at 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively, while in June 2007 they were even higher: 12 percent for notebooks and 7 percent for desktops.
Wednesday, rival research firm NPD Group said that Mac unit sales were down 6 percent in January, something Carton spun to tout ChangeWave's accuracy in predicting future sales. "We predicted a big falloff in January for laptops for Apple," Carton said, pointing to the ChangeWave poll of last month that said the Mac laptop share of planned purchases would fall to 27 percent from November 2008's 33 percent. "And that's what happened."
Other major American computer makers will fare about the same as Apple - or worse. Hewlett-Packard's share of purchases planned for the next 90 days stayed at 28 percent for notebooks, but fell a percentage point to 22 percent for desktops.
Dell's share, however, continued to slide in ChangeWave's survey. This month's poll put Dell's slice of the future desktop buying pie at 32 percent, down 2 points from January and off 5 points from November. Its laptop share numbers were gloomier yet: At 26 percent, off 2 points from January and down 7 points from November.
"It seems Dell has been tracking down forever," said Carton. "We're just not picking up much traffic for Dell going forward."
The brightest spot in PC buying plans, said Carton, remains netbooks, the loose category that defines small, lightweight and most importantly, low-priced, laptops. Of the people polled, 18% said that they plan to purchase a netbook in the next 90 days, an increase of 4 percentage points from January.
"The demand for netbooks remains strong," said Carton, who credited their price as the major factor driving sales.
Don't expect PC sales to rebound anytime soon, Carton cautioned. "Things are very, very tough out there. It's a simple thesis, really. People are spending less because they're trying to save more, and they're trying to save more because they're not confident in how things will go. The consumer is going into a fetal position.
"All of that is moving people towards lower prices in general," Carton added. "And that's going to make it tough for Apple. But I think we'll see Apple muddle through."