For the first time in at least seven years, consumer electronics sales fell from the previous year at the start of the holiday shopping season, analysts said, dashing hopes that the category would hold up despite the weak economy.
In dollar terms, sales were down 8.4 percent for the week ending the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the NPD Group reported this week. The traditional start of the holiday shopping season is "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving.
The drop makes the consumer electronics category appear to be a loser compared to the overall market. Total sales in all categories of products rose 0.8 percent for the week, according to another research firm, ShopperTrak RCT.
Electronics sales weren't a complete rout. Flat-panel LCD TVs and laptop computers were the strongest categories, with sales up 8 percent in each, NPD said. About the same number of units were sold as last year. Beyond that, however, there wasn't much to cheer about for manufacturers and retailers.
"Televisions and notebook computers really did bring all the dollars in, and once we got beyond those categories there just weren't a lot of dollars available for the rest of marketplace," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for NPD. The firm tracks shipments from manufacturers and sales at retailers.
NPD doesn't specifically look at profits, but noted that retailers resisted the temptation to slash prices to the bone.
"We didn't see enormous door-busters at pricing that we haven't seen before," Baker said. More aggressive price cuts might have let retailers sell more units, but probably wouldn't have boosted overall revenues, he believes.
"Consumers were just not spending this holiday," Baker said.
Categories that shined last year failed to repeat the performance. Sales of GPS navigation units fell by 14 percent. Digital picture frames, which have been heavily advertised, fell 1.1 percent from last year, after more than doubling their sales the year before.
"We don't really seem to have a hot new product," Baker said.
Players for Blu-ray discs, the high-definition successor to the DVD, did relatively well, since the prices are now below $200. Retailers sold 147,000 units, excluding Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3 consoles, which can also play the discs. But the older format is still king: Three times as many DVD players were sold.