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Americans buying ‘historic’ amount of computers during coronavirus lockdown

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

As states and cities across the country continue to roll out and enforce stay at home orders to contain the novel coronavirus, Americans are transitioning from the office to the home office. And with that change, workers are finding they don’t have the resources they need to effectively and comfortably do their jobs remotely.

That in turn is causing a massive uptick in the sale of everything from webcams and monitors to laptops and printers at retailers including Best Buy and Walmart. The increase is so significant, in fact, that sales of certain devices like webcams and monitors have grown by more than 100% in just a few short weeks.

“We’re sort of calling it the ‘stuck-at-home’ bubble,” IDC research vice president Linn Huang said.

The massive jump in sales won’t last forever. In fact, it may have already peaked. But the coronavirus lockdowns may force consumers to recognize that they need more than just the phones in their pockets to meet all of the technology needs.

What we’re spending on

According to a representative from Walmart (WMT), sales in the retailer’s computing department are “up quite a bit.” Those include an increase in laptops, tablets, and printers, though the company was unable to provide specifics on the jump.

Americans are purchasing a historic amount of home technology, as they're forced to stay in-doors. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

Best Buy (BBY), which is doing curb-side pickup to help prevent the spread of coronavirus between sales associates and customers, has seen a similar increase in the sale of laptops, monitors, and webcams.

According to market researcher NPD Group, U.S. sales of laptops and desktops were up 40%, while keyboard sales were up 64% in the first 3 weeks of March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. PC headset and monitor sales were also up 134% and 138%, respectively.

And of course, webcam sales were up a whopping 179%.

“Whether working or learning from home, productivity hardware is required — and with many Americans settling into this new reality, we saw historic sales increases over the first two weeks of March,” NPD Group vice president of technology and mobile Stephen Baker wrote in a March 30 blog post.

That jump in PC sales is especially striking, as the industry has been dealing with years of declining sales, save for a modest 2.7% uptick in 2019. (Below, the radio show host Ira Glass demonstrates his “stuck-at-home” work setup.)

“Again, there are a lot of people that are forced to think of their home infrastructure in ways that they haven’t thought about in quite some time,” IDC’s Huang said. “There are a lot of casual sort of tech users nowadays who are comfortable carrying most of their computer needs in their pocket with their phone. And now that they’re stuck at home, they are realizing how important the other stuff is.”

The bump won’t last, but it will change how people buy tech

But the spike in device sales may have already peaked.

According to Huang, the devices that people have been snatching up were largely left over from the winter season when retailers stocked up out of fear that tariffs on goods made in China would hurt their sales.

What consumers are buying now, he explained, are the remainders of that stockpile. 

Going into Q2, he said, the industry may be faced with a tightening supply chain in China as in-demand parts become hard to come by as a result of the extended Lunar New Year and subsequent factory closures in the country. While many manufacturers are getting back to normal, the lag time in making parts will start to hit device makers.

“By the time we go into Q3,” Huang said, “we could be months into a global recession, and so we’re concerned about how consumer confidence will track then.”

According to Gartner director analyst Mikako Kitagawa, businesses may end up pushing greater sales in the tech industry after lockdowns are lifted, as they begin to recognize the need for portable devices that employees can take with them in emergency situations.

“The business side will be more interesting, because the whole thing will make the business world change more toward telecommuting. Or maybe some companies will be ready for business continuity and disaster recovery,” she said.

Interestingly, Huang said he believes once lockdowns are lifted and consumer confidence returns, we could see a long-term increase in at-home device sales, as more people realize that they need up-to-date laptops, desktops, and networking equipment in their homes in case such an emergency strikes again.

When that consumer confidence will return, however, is anyone’s guess.

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at danielphowley@protonmail.com or dhowley@yahoofinance.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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