Research firms: Mac sales up, but Apple slips to fifth in PC market

While Mac sales in the U.S. were up 31 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, Apple was unable to keep pace with exploding sales of cheap Windows PCs, and fell to the No. 5 spot, research firm IDC said Wednesday.

Rival analysts at Gartner, meanwhile, pegged Apple ‘s year-over-year growth at 23 percent, and also put it in fifth place, behind Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Toshiba. Apple’s new position is down one from the same quarter in 2008.

The 40,000-Mac difference between the two research companies’ numbers was enough for Apple to outperform the U.S. computer industry average by IDC’s account, but come in under the average gain in Gartner’s calculations. But even with fourth quarter gains three to four times greater than those in the third quarter, Apple’s sales increases couldn’t match the numbers of HP , which boosted its unit sales by 45 percent, and Toshiba, which grew its sales by 71 percent.

“The U.S. market last quarter continued to be very price driven,” said Mikako Kitagawa, a Gartner analyst. “If a company is not in the low-priced market, it’s absolutely difficult for it to increase market share. And Apple did not do as well as others in share because of its prices.”

According to Kitagawa, the growth in U.S. PC sales was driven largely by low-priced notebooks and netbooks, which HP, Acer and Toshiba sold in abundance. Apple’s lowest-priced laptop, however, costs twice as much as the $500 Windows notebooks that played a big part in the quarter, Kitagawa added.

IDC explained the sales boom the same way. “The U.S. market exploded in the fourth quarter,” IDC research manager David Daoud said in a statement yesterday. “The vendors responded with new low price points to stimulate demand and face competition.” Apple did nothing of the kind: Although it refreshed the iMac desktops and the low-end MacBook in October, it did not follow other computer makers and drop prices during the quarter.

IDC estimated that Apple sold 1.52 million Macs in the U.S. for the quarter ending Dec. 31, for a market share of 7.4 percent; Gartner put Mac sales at 1.48 million, representing a share of 7.5 percent. Those share estimates are lower than the research firms’ estimates for the third quarter, which ranged from 8.8 percent for Gartner to 9.4 percent for IDC.

That’s not surprising, said Kitagawa. “Apple is very strong in the educational market, and they always show a spike in the third quarter,” she said.

But even with the dip in share, Apple’s double-digit growth for the quarter makes it a good bet that the company will reveal record global sales later this month. One clue that points to a possible second-consecutive record quarter is Apple’s latest 10K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In the document, Apple said its Mac sales in the U.S. increased by only 4 percent in fiscal year 2009, which ended last September. Sales in Europe, however, jumped by 13 percent year-over-year, hinting that strong international sales may be able to boost total Mac sales to the 3.3 million mark, which is what Brian Marshall of BroadPoint AmTech predicted last week.

Overall, U.S. computer sales were at a record high of 20.7 million units for the quarter, said IDC, while Gartner estimated the total at 19.8 million. Gartner pegged the global PC sales increase at 22.1 percent year-over-year, the largest gain in the last seven years.

“These preliminary results indicate the recovery of the PC market on a global level,” said Gartner’s Kitagawa.

Apple will release its official sales figures Monday, Jan. 25, when it holds a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

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