Mac U.S. sales fall year-to-year for first time since '03

Netbook sales, down economy continue to plague Apple, says IDC

Apple's Mac sales in the U.S. fell last quarter compared to the same period the year before, the first time the company has posted a year-to-year slide in six years, market research firm IDC said Thursday.

"It's the first negative growth in the U.S. since the first quarter of 2003," said Doug Bell, an analyst with IDC. "It's been a long run."

IDC estimated Mac shipments in the U.S. during the first three months of the year at 1.13 million, compared to the 1.14 million of the first quarter of 2008, a slip of 1.1%. Sales were also off from the fourth quarter, when by IDC's calculation, Apple sold 1.25 Macs in the U.S.

Oddly enough, the slower sales translated into a larger share of the total U.S. market for Apple. According to IDC, Apple accounted for 7.6% of the U.S. market last quarter, up from 7.4% a year ago, and 7.2% in the fourth quarter of 2008.

"That was a function of a couple of things," said Bell. "One big factor is Dell's poor growth, which decreased the market size significantly, since they account for quarter of the U.S. sales."

Dell's U.S. sales were off a whopping 16.2% year-to-year, and dropped 15.1% from the last three months of 2008. Of the top five U.S. computer makers, only Dell and Apple showed a sales drop during 2009's first three months.

"The 'Others' category, which is smaller vendors and white box makers, also was down," said Bell. "They had a tough time competing against the major vendors because of [the larger computer makers'] low ASP," he said, referring to the average sales price of machines last quarter.

"Some of that affected Apple, too," he added. "People are more price conscious." Although Apple posted huge year-to-year gains during parts of 2008 -- in the first quarter of 2008 its U.S. sales were up 50% over the year before -- those days are probably over until the economy recovers. Bell noted that although Mac users are "very loyal," many of the gains Apple made came from former Windows users who switched to the Mac. That's the group most likely now to either defer a Mac purchase or stick with a Windows PC, he said.

But Apple's slip, as unusual as it was, wasn't as dramatic as the overall drop in U.S. computer sales; IDC pegged the market as down 3.1% year-to-year, again primarily because of Dell's steep decline.

And it could have been worse. Netbooks, which IDC prefers to call "mini notebooks," and the ensuing fall in prices because of their popularity, have sparked sales.

The continued success of netbooks has also affected Apple. "It definitely might even be more of a factor the rest of the year," Bell said, "as telecommunications companies become more of a channel for netbooks." Last month, for instance, AT&T confirmed it's been selling netbooks from Dell and Acer for US$99 when customers commit to a two-year data contract at $60 per month. Radio Shack started selling an Acer netbook for the same price in mid-December 2008, also with an AT&T 3G data plan commitment.

However, Bell doesn't think Apple will be hurt in the long run by its lackluster sales of late. "The U.S. economy is taking its toll on Apple," he acknowledged, "but I wouldn't expect it to be long."

IDC ranked the top five computer companies by sales as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer, Apple and Toshiba. HP posted a year-to-year sales gain of 12.2%, while Acer -- which has been pushing netbooks -- grew its sales by 13.4%. "Acer is a top-tier vendor now," said Bell, "with brand recognition in the U.S."

Apple is scheduled to deliver its earnings report April 22 after the stock market closes, and will reveal 2009's first-quarter sales figures then. In the last calendar quarter of 2008, Apple said it sold 912,000 computers in the Americas, and another 515,000 in its retail stores, the bulk of which are in the U.S.

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