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Distributors See Connected CE Joining Back-To-School Staples

NEW YORK – While students prepare for finals, graduation parties and the summer break, the CE industry is already planning their return to school in the fall.

That’s because back-to-school is the second-biggest selling season for consumer electronics after Christmas, with retail sales of tech goods approaching $8.5 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

The numbers aren’t lost on the nation’s CE distributors, which are stocking up on back-to-school staples like laptops and headphones, and also see new opportunities in wearables, surveillance and other connected products.

Curt Hayes, president and chief financial officer of Capitol, believes “personal technology” — ranging from headphones to tablets and more recently wearables — will continue to dominate the back-to-school season. “Many of these products satisfy several consumer needs at once: streaming audio, videos, email and heart-rate monitoring,” he observed.

Of all the personal tech items, headphones remain one of the biggest back-to-school sellers, Hayes said, serving as both a listening device and a fashion statement. Bluetooth streamers will also continue to be popular, as “there is a model and price range for every budget,” he noted.

For New Age Electronics, traditional back-to-school categories like notebooks, printers and storage will continue to be key drivers this year, although outfitting the college dorm room has also become a big part of the season, said president Fred Towns. To help fill that bill, Towns is particularly keen on digital lighting with bulbs that double as Wi-Fi repeaters and speakers.

That’s not to take away from headphones and Bluetooth speakers, which remain hot back-to-school items for students looking to personalize their entertainment experience, he added.

Dennis Holzer, executive director of the PowerHouse Alliance, a national consortium of regional distributors, is “very optimistic” about the group’s back-to-school business based on demand thus far in 2015, and foresees “no slowdown at this point,” he said. Categories that hold the most promise for the season include computers, tablets, TVs and all manner of networking products, including routers and access points, he noted.

Tate Morgan, president of Petra Industries, also expects a promising back-to-school season, especially for those with a focus on personal protection and video surveillance. Products like pepper spray and key chain alarm sirens “give [college] students and their parents security as they head to new campuses,” he observed, while many are also placing video surveillance in dorm rooms and apartments.

Another traditionally strong seasonal category is video displays, including TVs and monitors. High-res monitors with a variety of inputs can be used for video content, gaming and enhancing the computing experience while keeping small dorm spaces less cluttered, Morgan said, and also open the door to adjunct sales of high-margin cabling, keyboards, controllers and related accessories.

For Larry Staub, director of D&H Distributing’s education division, mobile technology has always been a top back-to-school category. This year, thanks to mobile’s marriage to IoTready devices, connected products like wearable fitness activity bracelets and e-mail notification watches are gaining momentum, he said.

“Tech-savvy students want a technological connection between everything from their dorm rooms and their smartphones to their own vital signs,” he observed.

Nevertheless, “standards” like laptops and tablets are still strong sellers, both in Chrome and Windows models, Staub noted, and can be significantly bolstered by add-on and peripheral items like mice, adapters, calculators, cases, backpacks, skins, earbuds and power strips.

Rob Aarnes, president of ADI North America, is also upbeat about back-to-school, based on the growth the distributor is enjoying across all product categories. Like Staub, Aarnes sees “a lot of opportunity around the connected home, as users are depending more on their smartphones and tablets to manage applications.”

Specifically, the integration of IP video surveillance, access control and intrusion systems is becoming increasingly popular by providing a comprehensive security system that users can manage from a single interface, he said. “Integrated systems let users stay connected to their homes remotely, and allow them to monitor their children. The connected home can provide peace of mind for parents that children are home safe, doors are locked and the thermostat is set appropriately.”

Dealers can also offer add-on security solutions like vehicle tracking to provide additional security for new drivers, and give parents an overall view of their child’s daily activity, Aarnes said.