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A Glass Half Full

NPD has released its Consumer Technology Black Friday week sales data, and based on my analysis I think the most reasonable conclusion is to view the results as a glass being half full. Yes, the overall sales (in dollars) were down, but the pockets of strength we saw were surprising, and in my view encouraging, at least if are willing to look beyond Dec 25th.

In the spirit of the web, however, we probably ought to get to the bad news first. Sales remain a bit weak, as they have been all year. With sales dollars down approximately 3.5% versus 2009, we will face a challenge in generating enough volume to deliver better results than last year. To us, the early level of promotional activity felt very similar to what it has been in the past couple of years, with very strong and aggressively promoted and priced specials early in November. Like the past couple of years, however, these promotions mostly served to set pricing levels and act as competitive promotions between retailers. NPD’s Weekly Tracking Service shows very little impact to the overall results from these promotions, which tend to attract cherry picking, price-focused consumers who buy and leave without purchasing much beyond the special deal of the day.

This year’s holiday sales faced pressures beyond a weak economy, with comparisons against 2009 in some key categories like PCs being very difficult to comp positively against. Notebook sales were down 7% in units and 4% in dollars versus last year’s 40% unit increase, so while the actual results may be disappointing, 2010 sales figures are actually quite good when compared to the 2009 increase. Desktops showed some weakness as well with volume down 11% from last year. Other categories suffered as well with much less promotion and doorbuster pricing compared to prior years. With pricing down at very low levels, and netbooks being less prominent this year, some decline was inevitable.

Other categories caught in the downdraft were GPS systems and point-and-shoot cameras, both of which posted lackluster results. Camera unit sales were down 14% versus 2009 with revenue off almost 10%. The only good news was a small increase in the ASP to $116, although given the sales results, that was likely the consequence of consumers lack of interest in the doorbuster and price-based promotional merchandise. GPS systems delivered similar results. Prices were down just $10, to $113 but unit volume was off a miserable 27% from 2009, a far comedown from last year’s 14% increase in volume.

Now for the good news. Taking a step back, these sales results are actually encouraging for 2011. While negative is never good we should remember that some of this holiday’s most sought after products are in data that has yet to be delivered by NPD. Results for the video game market are likely to be good with Microsoft’s Kinect and Playstation 3’s Move apparently getting off to strong starts, and aggressive price cutting being a key feature of Nintendo’s product marketing. Smartphone and pad/tablet are not available yet either, and it goes without saying that smartphones are guaranteed to be one the holiday’s strongest categories, while iPads and e-readers are among the most sought after gifts.

All that said, there is one category that does stand out among all the others for its importance, its volume, its continued high level of desirability for consumers and the emphasis retail placed on it, and that was TV. While TV units and dollars have been weak all year, and in fact have posted mostly negative sales results nearly every month according to NPD’s Retail Tracking Service, this Black Friday the category clearly exceeded expectations. With an overall unit increase of 5% and flat dollar sales, Black Friday week exceeded the results for almost every other period in 2010. Average selling prices were down just 5% to $503 despite the heavy emphasis placed on low priced, low feature doorbuster products during the holiday weekend. The big winner was the 42-inch product segment, where strong promotions for both plasma and LCD drove unit sales up 20% and ASPs fell about 20% in the category to $469. While there were promotions on larger screens, sales results show that consumers were not just seeking low-cost flat panel in the size ranges above 42-inches. In fact, sales were nearly 40% ahead of last year in that size range, with a healthy increase in revenue.

Two other bright spots for Black Friday were Blu-ray and detachable lens cameras. Blu-ray sales set a record for unit volume during Black Friday week, and were more than 50% ahead of last year’s sales with a revenue increase as well. The influx of full-featured players for under $100 during the holiday helped drive sales results. While lens camera sales were strong, and a unit increase of 33% is very impressive for a category that has the highest ASP, $703, of any technology category, those sales were much more in line with the strong results we have seen all year from these products as opposed to being heavily impacted by Black Friday.

While the results were close to what was expected, it is good news for the industry that there does appear to be some momentum around a number of key tech categories, and that TVs appear primed to contribute positive results to the overall industry this holiday season. As the largest dollar value category during the holiday, it is imperative for TVs to be strong for the industry to post any type of upside surprise. Remember, there are still plenty of sales results to deliver.

Stephen Baker is The NPD Group’s, Vice President, Industry Analysis