Execs Assess Hot PC Accessories As CES Nears

By Jules Abend On Dec 18 2000 - 8:00am

The thought of selling computer accessories brings a smile to the lips of consumer electronics retailers. After all, like the automotive aftermarket, that's where the profit margins are.

Store executives are going to have a lot to be grinning about in 2001, as the computer accessories category continues to swell with diverse and improved products designed to fill consumer needs prompted by continuing innovations in computing. And although street prices on mature categories will continue to decline, pricing on new equipment should remain firm, said industry executives.

While looking at just a few of the many products that are, or will be, available this year and next, a number of managers and executives of the broad category assessed their niches just prior to 2001 International CES.

Mark Naidoff, VP/general manager of computer accessories at Itasca, Ill.-based Fellowes Manufacturing, said his company introduced this year more than 200 products in 24 categories, including media labeling, PDA accessories, headsets and mobile computing SKUs.

Naidoff credits this activity to declining hardware prices and said that as computers, peripherals and PDAs continue to drop, consumers are able to purchase more accessories. He sees strong activity in PDA accessories as the installed unit base grows, and thinks mobile computing accessories will sell well as more consumers use the tools.

Also, Naidoff said, the media-labeling business is increasing as the number of CD Writers continues to grow.

Regarding the current debate over whether USB will be upstaged by FireWire ports, Keith Renty, corporate education manager for Belkin Components-the Compton, Calif.-based Universal Serial Bus (USB) connectivity product maker-said, "I believe what you're going to end up with is two competing technologies.

"Although FireWire will remain faster, the technology that's going to be most offered to the general consumer will be USB because of the price points and the number of computers [PCs vs. Macs] that are being used. Considering that there's a new kid on the block called USB 2.0, which operates at 480 megabits/second, if you like USB 1.1, you'll love 2.0."

Greg Fournier, senior product manager for the desktop group at West Kingston, R.I.-based American Power Conversion (APC), is looking at surge suppressors and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) systems. He expects to see the need for more desktop power protection as a result of deregulation of utility power-which bodes well for his segment.

"People need to protect their electronics more so than in the past," said Fournier. "We expect they are going to experience more brownouts and coarser power. And with technology becoming more and more sensitive, users are going to need more stable power and more control over their environment."

Fournier thinks prices will come down on protection equipment and said that with reduced computer prices, "it's almost impossible to sell a $300 unit for a $600 computer." At the same time, he stressed that nonessential features will be re-moved to achieve the reductions and that customers will still be able to buy loaded UPS or surge protector models, "but they're going to pay the premium."

Cynthia Harrison, new product development VP at Philadelphia-based Computer Expressions-a CD media storage company that's known for its strong younger-set licensing strategies-reports that the trend in her niche is to higher-capacity wallets, albums and bags.

"Our customers are saying, 'I want a 96 or a 200. I want a larger media bag to hold my CDs and my CD player, 'and that's where we're going," said Harrison.

Computer Expressions snared the Pokemon license for 2000, and "we are coming close to doubling our sales over 1999," she said. But that was last year, and now, said Harrison, "it's Poke-who?" Accordingly, the licensee sought and acquired the popular Harry Potter and Powerpuff Girls licenses for 2001.

However, Harrison noted that because of rising oil costs, pricing has been challenging. "We've done a good job of holding the line," she said, "which is all anybody can ask for this year."

What are the hot products going to be in 2001?

Noting the increase of worldwide business travelers and their need for mobile computing power, APC has added a compact 75-watt DC/AC power inverter that weighs less than 1 pound. The unit is priced at $79.99, although Fournier said it will retail a little below that.

Called the APC Travel Power, the device plugs directly into a car cigarette lighter and uses the vehicle's battery to power up any brand notebook. The model is equipped with safety features that include a red status indicator to alerts the user if a car battery drops below 10.8 volts and shuts down to prevent draining.

On an airplane, the inverter uses the in-flight seat connector as a power source. The product rounds out the company's mobile line, which includes a Worldwide Surge Protector that eliminates the use of adapters, Fournier said. APC is also now selling a line of batteries for laptops.

For 2001, Belkin has added two new FireWire units: a four-port hub (F5U524) and a FireWire-to-SCSI Adapter (F5U541).

The four-port hub sits directly on a desktop, eliminating the need to reach down behind to gain access. The hub is stackable, and 63 devices can be connected by daisy-chaining multiple hubs. The unit offers plug-and-play capabilities and is hot swappable. It also acts as a repeater by amplifying the transmission signals in over 14.75-foot increments over 223 feet. Suggested retail price is $89.99.

The FireWire-to-SCSI adapter is suited for the Mac or PC user with firewall capabilities who still wants to use legacy SCSI devices. It offers faster transfer speeds and uniformity of a system of peripherals all operating on the same interface. It works with generic drivers and supports SCSI and SCSI2. Suggested retail is $119.99.

Belkin also introduced a USB 2.0 four- port hub to complement its USB 2.0 PCI card. It will be ready to ship in January and has a suggested retail of $89.99.

Catering to the kids, Computer Expressions is banking on its Harry Potter and Powerpuff Girls goods in 2001, with the expectation that Master Potter's wallets and mousepads will be the standout.

A pair of wallets have an intricately embroidered seal on a black leatherette surface. Soft Crimson velvet lines the Gryffindor wallet, while the Hogwarts unit has plush purple velvet inside.

Also available is a series of Harry Potter mouse-pads. The first shows the Hogwarts seal against a background of the school castle, while the second depicts Harry and his first-year classmates approaching Hogwarts by boat. A third design features Harry grabbing the Golden Snitch during a Qudditch game. Street price for wallets is $14.99, while the mousepads are $9.99 and $12.99.

Computer Expressions' Powerpuff Girls line features sparkle CD wallets with bright pink or purple covers, with illustrations of Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. Two styles of mousepads are also available, showing the trio in action. Suggested retail for both categories is $12.50.

Also from the company: A line of iridescent, color-changing CD wallets and media bags, and spiral and bubble CD wallets and purses. Suggested retails on the iridescent products range from about $15 for the 24- capacity wallet to $20 for 48 and $25 for 96. Suggested retail for media bags is also $25. Spiral wallets and purses range from $10.50 to $12.50.

Going upscale, a line of top-stitched leather wallets in black or tan has tooled Eternal Knot designs on the covers. Matching address books and travel portfolios are available. Suggested retails for the wallets and address books/travel portfolios are $19.99 and $29.99, respectively.

Keeping its pulse on the growth categories, Fellowes has introduced a variety of accessories products to take advantage of the trends. For instance, noting that sales of touch pads, used as options to traditional pointing devices, are estimated to increase 8-10 percent though 2004 , the company just brought out two models: the Standard Touch Pad and the Internet Touch Pad.

The Standard plug-and-point model provides the same functionality as a mouse but doesn't require pressure. Users move a finger and tap the surface for clicking or use mechanical buttons. With a PS/2 connection, the unit has a suggested retail of $19.99.

Fellowes' Internet Touch Pad, measuring 5 inches square and less than a half-inch high, has all the features of the Standard model plus such advanced Internet capabilities as one-touch surfing, ergonomic scrolling and zooming, and four embossed, virtual "hot buttons." Suggested retail is $39.99.

Also in the desktop area, four new ergonomic keyboard managers have been introduced. The Fully Adjustable Keyboard Manager has a suggested price of $99.95, and three Premium Articulating Keyboard Manager models-called Traditional, Corner and Sit/Stand-are $239.95, $279.95 and $329.95, respectively.

With PDA sales increasing as much as 40 percent annually, Fellowes has added five new products-including a Universal PDA Handheld Case designed to fit nearly all PDA sizes and styles. The case includes slotted compartments for credit cards, a removable pad, dual holders for a pen and a stylus, compartments that organize receipts and cash, and a zipper closure. Suggested retail is $17.99.

Also offered are 12-packs of micro-thin screen WriteRight overlays designed for the color screen Palm IIIc, at a suggested retail of $24.99/pack.

Three stylus pens have been added: the PDA StylusPEN, Slimpoint StylusPEN and Premier StylusPEN. Each is multi-function device that can transform from a stylus to a pen that is refillable with a standard ink cartridge. The PDA and Premier models come with pen clips. The Slimpoint is designed to fit entirely into any port. Street prices, are $6.99, $12.99 and $24.99, respectively.

Chicago-based Tripp Lite Power Protection has expanded its SmartPro series of intelligent, line-interactive UPS systems with the introduction of three systems in its "2U" series: the 1400VA, SMART1400RM2U; the 2200VA, SMART2200RM2U; and the 3000VA, SMART3000RM2U. These feature the 2U slim-line cabinet design that enables two units to occupy the same rack space.

The 2U UPS Systems include up to two RS-232 ports and up to two USB ports for simultaneous multiple server control. Other features include an external battery connector, user-replaceable batteries, dual-output circuit breakers, emergency power off connection and a 10-foot power cord.

A variety of outlet configurations is available to combine 15-, 20- and 30-amp outlets. The units carry a $50,000 warranty covering connected equipment against surge damage, including direct lightning strikes. Prices were not available at press time.

Tripp Lite has also upgraded its PowerAlert Software (version 10.2) to include PowerAlert Enterprise, an application that provides a single graphical interface of UPS systems networkwide to let IS managers remotely react to alerts-without the need for a Network Management System.

The software can display all networked UPS equipment in a single "icon tree" format, with icons displayed alone or with detailed reports of power conditions. Xircom, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has introduced the snap-in SpringPort Wireless Data module-which enables wireless Internet connection for Handspring Visor handhelds and provides connectivity via GSM, PCS and PDC mobile phones, enabling users to check e-mail, send and receive Short Message Service (SMS) messages and synchronize data anytime, anywhere.

The module connects via widely used mobile phones, including Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens for unlimited Internet access with no service fee. Suggested retail price is $129.

Also available from Xircom are Credit Card Wireless Ethernet Adapter models for notebook PC users that enable IT managers to provide employees with quick, secure and cable-free access to the corporate network and the Internet. Model CWE1120 (40-bit WEP encryption) has a suggested retail of $199. Model CWE1130 (128-bit WEP encryption) is tagged at $219.

For 2001, Glenview, Ill.-based Zenith Electronics Corp. is offering a line of accessories for RJ-11 and RJ-45 CAT 5 wiring products, as well as in-line couplers, mounting boxes and wiring and cable.

The company is introducing five RJ-11 surge protectors. The leader is ZES110, a seven-surge outlet that has the ability to install into a fax/modem jack. The line steps to an eight-outlet surge, also with a phone or fax modem jack.

The seven-outlet model has a $25,000 connection insurance policy, and the eight-outlet surge is covered for $50,000. There is also an eight-outlet model, designed for an RJ-45 connection, with a $75,000 warranty. At the highest end Zenith, offers an eight-outlet device with fax or modem, plus cable and satellite, with a $100,000 policy.

Lower-end units in the line have 570-joule rating, while the top models carry a 1,900-joule rating.

The protectors have attached safety caps and are color-coded, and all provide spacing for AC transformer plugs. The eight-outlet unit, for example, has five plugs in a row and three spaced plugs.

Suggested retail prices range from $17.99 to $39.99.

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