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Dirt-cheap laptops might be this year's stocking stuffer

Mark Hachman | Nov. 25, 2014
Black Friday and Cyber Monday promise commodity-priced laptops and tablets, while the biggest-ticket items may be in the smallest packages: smartphones.

By July 2014, analyst firms were reporting actual declines in tablet sales, and retailers like Best Buy began praying for a laptop revival. Remember, these are the same laptops whose low-end prices have more than halved in four years.

Now, in the eight weeks after the back-to-school season officially ended, Baker said, tablet sales fell 16 percent in terms of unit sales and 18 percent in terms of dollar sales. Even sales of Apple's iPad are down 15 percent during that period, he added.

"We're seeing tablets getting squeezed right now," Baker said. 

Component costs are down, too
Dell executives, who confirmed the authenticity of the ads, said there's been significant cost compression from Intel or Microsoft that allow Dell to make cheaper notebooks and tablets that are designed for more than just surfing the Web and watching movies. "We're excited about the fact that technology is more accessible, and that more people are able to buy PCs that couldn't a few years ago," Marissa Tarleton, a Dell digital marketing executive, said in an interview.

Tarleton said that customers are asking for more than products that play games, indirectly making the case for notebooks. Unfortunately, they still want that aspect for free, it seems: Tarleton added that there'd been strong growth in the sub-$300 price range over the past few weeks, as the market "got ready" for Black Friday sales.

"What customers have told us that consumption is great, but they need to be able to do more, but on something that doesn't cost a thousand dollars," she said. 

And like many others, Dell has turned to tablets. Its cheapest Black Friday doorbuster is actually the $100 Venue 7 3000, normally priced at $150. Dell has also announced the Venue 8000, a tablet with an embedded depth camera that it will likely position as a premium, higher-priced tablet.

Meanwhile, Dell will continue to invest in gaming notebooks and alternative form factors, particularly two-in-ones, as higher-margin products, Tarleton added.

Chromebooks exerting pressure
Chromebooks, the low-cost compute devices that run Google's Chrome OS, haven't necessarily been showcased in Black Friday circulars, but they're making an impression nonetheless. Although prices vary, Chromebooks generally range from $200 to $350 or so, and now come loaded with up to 1TB of Google Drive storage, too. 

It's unclear how Chromebooks will sell on Black Friday and during the holidays, but Microsoft is busy promoting cheap notebooks like the HP Stream 11 as full-flavored Chromebook killers. When asked to comment on its Black Friday strategy, Microsoft declined.

While it may be difficult to quantify what will drive shoppers online and into stores this holiday season, a 2014 holiday survey by the Consumer Electronics Association says that shoppers will hunt down the old standbys: tablets, TVs, and notebooks. Smartphones, however, showed the biggest gains, jumping 6 percentage points up the list. (The CEA did not release the actual percentages of those searching for each category.) 


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