PCs cap worst-ever sales year with another 4Q drop

SAN FRANCISCO – Personal computer sales sank even further during the holiday shopping season, capping the steepest annual decline in PC shipments since desktop and laptop machines began to appear on people’s wish lists decades ago.

The fourth-quarter numbers released Thursday by the research firms Gartner Inc. and International Data Corp. serve as the latest testament to the growing popularity of smartphones and tablet computers. The mobile devices are typically less expensive than PCs and more convenient to use than clunky desktops, making them appealing alternatives to go online for work, entertainment, information and communications.

Gartner cited the mobile shift as the main reason for a 7 percent drop in worldwide PC sales from the previous year during the three months ending in December, a period when the demand for electronics is at its peak. It marks the seventh consecutive quarter of decreasing PC sales.

IDC came up with a slightly different figure. By its calculations, worldwide PC shipments slipped by nearly 6 percent during the fourth quarter.

For all of last year, PC sales plunged 10 percent, according to both Gartner and IDC. Shipments of desktop and laptop computers had never slipped by more than 4 percent in any other previous year. The other annual declines occurred in 2001, in the midst of a technology bust driven by a collapse in the Internet sector, and in 2012, which marked the early stages of the migration to tablet computers.

Somewhere between 314 million and 316 million PCs shipped last year, according to Gartner and IDC. That means PCs have backtracked to roughly the same level as in 2009 when the worldwide economy was struggling to shake off the Great Recession.

PC sales are expected to deteriorate a little more this year, with IDC projecting a decline of 4 percent.

Hewlett-Packard Co., the largest U.S. maker of PCs, had a particularly tough fourth quarter as its shipments declined by 7 percent to 9 percent from the same time in 2012, according to Gartner and IDC.