The back-to-school shopping season has begun and although spending is expected to decrease in most categories, industry analysts anticipate continued sales growth in PCs as college and high school students head back to class.
“Notebook computers have been the hot back-to-school item for at least five years since prices began to fall around 2002-2003 time frame,” says Stephen Baker, vice president of NPD Group, a consumer and retail information trade group. “Unit volumes have continued to grow as a combination of the introduction of netbooks and the falling prices on full size notebooks has kept consumers in the marketplace.”
According to the National Federation’s Retail 2009 back-to-school survey, the electronics sector is forecast to increase up to 11 percent in sales this year, despite the fact that 49.6 percent of BTS shoppers are planning to spend less.
And back-to-college buyers are purchasing laptops because they think it’s a necessity, as many universities are almost requiring students to have one.
“Speaking from personal experience, I am always asked by professors to bring my laptop to class for numerous assignments,” says Cassandra Lee Laboy, a junior at Syracuse University. “And so, I need and want a laptop.”
“I bought a laptop over the summer, I figured that this was a smart investment for me to make as I enter my senior year,” said Evan Hamberger, a senior at the University at Buffalo.
College students and their parents are expected to spend an average of $618.12 on all back to school items up from $599.38 last year, according to NRF’s back-to-college survey. It's forecast that students will spend on average around $266 on electronics in comparison to last year's $212.
“Parents just want to make sure that they have everything they need for their kids' education,” says Christopher Casper, Toshiba’s group manager product marketing. “Laptops are one item that people are willing to comprise on.”
Even though laptops have the highest demand among other electronics, netbooks are also popular because they are more affordable.
“We have seen a lot of success with our new netbook. It’s relatively inexpensive and it’s in the $399 range,” says Casper. “We just launched it in June, it’s specifically for the BTS season. We know that people find it very convenient because it’s very small and compact.”
“The great thing about a netbook is that it is extremely affordable and portable. It’s much easier for me to carry it to class,” says Baldemar Torres, a junior at Stanford University.
Students are not only looking for less expensive computers, like netbooks, but also the chance to make them their own. Best Buy just released a new line of customizable laptops to take advantage of desire for personalizing.
“The Next Class line, is an exclusive offering of four different laptops that were built directly from student input,” says Kelley Noreen, senior merchant for computing at Best Buy. “It was driven by the needs we heard directly from students.”
Sony is one of the companies that worked with Best Buy to manufacturer one of the Next Class line computers.
“We have collaborated with them to create the NW 125, a model that is specially targeted for the next class project,” says Lauwaert Xavier, Sony’s product manager. “We are offering a specific configuration aimed clearly to the student market.”
According to industry analysts, students are not only looking for an affordable computer, but they also want something that represents them.
“We have a focus on color because it’s popular and stylish,” says Melissa O’Brien, Wal-Mart's spokesperson. “For some students it’s important, they think it’s cool.”
“Laptops of different colors are cool. It's what makes your computer stand out from the others,” say Veronica Diaz, a junior at the University of Michigan. “When I purchased my computer, color was definitely an important factor because I felt that it added a special personal touch of my personality.”
But there are limits to personal statements, says Toshiba's Casper.
“College students want something that will look good, but also if they were to get a summer job or internships where they had to bring their laptop, they wouldn’t be embarrassed,” says Casper. “They don’t want something that is too crazy.”
Although consumers may be cutting corners, back-to-school shopping is expected to reach $47.50 billion and computer sales will continue to grow analysts say.
“There aren't any good reasons that this demand should slow down during the back-to-school season,” says NPD’s Baker. “Notebooks are the most important consumer electronic category in the third quarter.”
“PC’s are not a luxury item, you almost have to have one.” says Toshiba's Casper. “If your computer goes bad, you basically can’t live without it. Especially when it comes to students, whether in high school or college.”