The final quarter of 2011 was tough for the PC industry, particularly in the mature western European markets. In the all-important run-up to Christmas, most vendors saw their PC sales affected by tight consumer budgets, and by a marked shift in consumer demand to other electronic devices, such as slate-type tablets.
Further, although PC sales to SMBs held up during Q4 of last year, corporate and public sector sales remained strangled by spending constraints. Sales in these segments were also hampered to some extent, especially towards the end of the quarter, by the HDD shortages stemming from the floods in Thailand at the beginning of Q4.
As a result, PC unit growth across western Europe was below expectations in Q4, both in terms of the overall market and when looking at sales through distribution. Our figures found that PC unit sales across western European distribution declined by 9.1 per cent in Q4 of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. If you include slates, though, the market grew 2.1 per cent.
The UK, however, managed to outperform the western European average when it came to sales via distribution in Q4. Before Christmas, PC retailers suffered low consumer spending, and the sell-through in distribution trended downwards at the end of the quarter.
That is when sales were hit particularly hard as consumers turned to tablets and, to a lesser extent, the first effects of the HDD shortage began to hit. However, the UK still managed to post overall quarterly growth of 2.2 per cent in the quarter, compared with Q4 2010. For PCs and slates combined, the figure was 14.2 per cent, which is a massive achievement compared with overall western Europe figures.
This positive trend in UK distribution carried over to early 2012. The UK saw distributor sales off to a good start at the beginning of the year, despite the increased impact of the HDD shortage and continuing pressure on corporate and public sector spend.
According to our figures, distributor PC sales across the UK were up 13.6 per cent for the first two months of 2012 against the prior-year period, and by 21 per cent when slates were included.
Although some of this growth was down to weak 2010 results, the UK continued to outperform western Europe, which saw PC sales decline 8.1 per cent during the period and increase 1.2 per cent when including slates.
The reasons for the strong Q4 and early-2012 UK results vary. While mobile sales, as in all other markets, were affected by a strong decline in netbook sales, the UK distribution channel benefited from above-average growth in slate tablet sales through Q4 of 2011.
Slate sales expanded 360 per cent year on year across UK distribution in Q4, compared with a west-ern Europe average growth of 212 per cent. Further, the UK in Q4 of 2011 benefited from demand coming from SMBs. Windows OS-based business notebook and desktop systems sold at double-digit rates.
In early 2012, strong growth in the UK was based partly on a weak previous year. UK distributor sales also benefited from continuous growth in business desktop sales, and from a pick-up in consumer sales across the mainstream mobile and desk-based segments, compared to the prior-year period.
UK PC distribution is expected to continue enjoying increased demand from SMBs over the next few months. However, sales to corporate customers and the public sector are likely to be further affected by spending cuts, and higher-end PC product sales are expected to suffer from HDD shortages until approximately the middle of this year.
Consumer PC sales will still be restricted by tight budgets and a preference for tablets, although we predict the newly launched ultrabook category will fuel some growth once the prices come down.
Marie-Christine Pygott is senior analyst for personal systems and displays at Context
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