Computer and Computer Software Stores

SIC 5734

Industry report:

This industry consists of establishments primarily engaged in the retail sale of computers, computer peripheral equipment, computer printers, and computer software. The wholesale distribution of these products for business or professional use is classified in SIC 5045: Computers and Computer Peripheral Equipment and Software.

Industry Snapshot

In the early years of the twenty-first century, after the explosive growth of the 1990s, computer sales began to plummet because of a weakening economy, stiff competition, and price deflation. Although the industry rebounded slightly in 2003, it was positioned for restructuring. By the mid-2000s, the increased influence and market share of online retailers for computers and computer equipment was growing. Computer stores had stiff competition from online sales and manufacturers-turned-retailers, especially Dell.

However, large office superstores and computer superstores, which added in-house customer service and technical support to combat past reputations for poor quality, continued to drive down prices and strengthen their position in the market, forcing traditional stores to diversify product lines to keep up with competition. Industry leader CompUSA was turning toward different product offerings, such as software on demand. There were fewer small computer specialty stores.

The number of dedicated computer and software stores decreased from 12,900 in 2000 to 11,100 in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the total number of stores in the electronics and appliances sector, of which this industry is a part, grew from 45,600 in 2000 to 49,000 in 2004.

Apple sought to increase its market share through consumer awareness and exposure. In 2003, two years after the first Apple retail stores opened, there were seventy locations across the country. Of the more than three million people who walked through the doors between April and June of that year, only 50 percent already owned a Mac computer.

Retail sales of non-games software, according to the market research firm NPD Group, were $2.9 billion in 2006, which reflected a 2 percent decline from the $3 billion in revenues the year before. The strongest sellers were business and system utilities software and in security suite software, while losses were seen in operating system and finance software.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 10,200 computer and software stores employing 88,388 workers who earned annual revenues of more than $2.2 billion in 2008. In the late 2000s, according to D&B Sales & Marketing Solutions Industry Reports, there were an estimated 37,606 establishments engaged in the retail sale of computers, computer peripheral equipment, computer printers, and computer software valued at $17.4 billion in 2009 with industry-wide employment of 174,076 workers. On average, computer and computer software stores employed five workers who generated about $500,000. California, Texas, and Florida collectively held nearly 32 percent of industry market share. Computer and software stores accounted for 73.7 percent in market share employing 115,529 workers with sales of $11 billion, or the bulk of industry sales.

Retailers of computer software and accessories operated 3,843 retail stores with 10.2 percent of the market had sales of more than $2.4 billion. Computer peripheral equipment retailers were valued at $1.2 billion, as was business and non-game software retailers with $1.2 billion in annual sales. Personal computer retailers sold $627.7 million worth in PCs, while retailers of modems, monitors, terminals, and disk drives for computer sold $342 million. Retailing of printers and plotters generated $308 million and software computer games retailers added $209 million to the industry's bottom line.

Background and Development

The first computers were developed in America during World War II, but it was not until 1953 that computers were sold commercially by companies such as IBM, General Electric, Honeywell, and RCA. These companies were involved in the manufacturing of computers for scientists, mostly at universities. The early commercial market was geared mainly toward large industry, which could afford the new and expensive technology. Eventually, these industry pioneers also started to market smaller and slower computers to a wider market.

By the 1960s more than 5,000 computers were in use in the United States. During the 1960s the number of computers doubled every two or three years to more than 40,000 by 1970. As computers grew in number, they became more reliable and faster, but their cost remained high.

Until the 1970s, the United States and Canada led the world in computer use and sales. After that, technology overseas had met that of North America, and computers worldwide were estimated to have grown at a rate of 20 percent per year at the end of the twentieth century.

The commercial sale of personal computers and easy-to-use software, developed in the 1980s, boosted the retail industry. Retail sales of computers were no longer directed only at large businesses. Instead, the target market for computer and software dealers extended to small businesses, schools, and individuals for at-home use.

Personal Computer Sales.
In 1990 an estimated 9.5 million personal computers (PCs) valued at nearly $28 billion were sold through retail outlets in America. Personal computers are general application computers with local programming abilities. PCs are grouped into two types, stationary and portable. Stationary systems are mostly desktop, deskside, or "tower" systems, and they made up about 80 percent of PCs sold in the United States in 1993. The remaining 20 percent were portable systems such as laptops, notebooks, and hand-held or pen-based systems.

The availability of PCs in a variety of retail outlets increased dramatically in the late 1980s. The intense competition spurred reduced prices for consumers. According to Link Resources, by 1993, 67 percent of small businesses (those employing fewer than 100 workers) had PCs. Another large market for PCs has been home worker households, which in 1993 purchased more than two-thirds of the PCs sold.

Workstation Sales.
Businesses in this industry also sold low-end workstations. Workstations are single and multi-user microprocessors, with the low end of the market very similar to PCs. Since their introduction in the early 1980s, workstations have been sold mainly for scientific and engineering use. In the 1990s, they became more popular with businesses, which used them for electronic publishing, financial services, and office automation.

Software Sales.
Software products sold by retailers in this industry included word processing programs, computer games, accounting packages, and software components for online services. In 1993 the leading software packages sold through retailers in America were MS-DOS 6.2 Upgrade, Adobe Type Manager Font, TurboTax for Windows, Quicken 3 for Windows, and MS Works 3.0 for Windows. According to the Software Publishers Association, sales of PC applications software alone exceeded $3 billion in the United States and Canada in 1993.

Among the top-selling non-games software products in 2006, according to the NPD Group, were MS Office 2003 Student/Teacher Edition, Turbo Tax Deluxe, Norton Internet Security 2006, Quickbooks 2006 Pro, and MS Windows XP Home Edition Upgrade.

Software dealers rely strongly on product trends set by technological developments and software producers. Software products available on the market increasingly are concerned with meeting the needs of children, families, and small businesses.

Compared to other retailers, companies in this industry have spent relatively small amounts on advertising. This is in part because the major computer and software manufacturers, rather than retailers, carry out product advertising. As a specialty retailer, this industry advertises mainly in computer magazines and online services rather than in the more costly mediums of television and radio.

Price Wars.
In the early 1990s this industry was characterized by competitive price wars. Intense price reductions began in 1991 and set industry records the following year, with reductions for computers averaging 33 percent. In general, retail computer sales shifted from small computer dealers to the large chain computer retailers, in particular the mass merchandisers who could sell computers at discount prices.

A channel of distribution that emerged from the industry price wars is the computer flea market, which caters to small dealers. In 1992 Business Week reported that computer sales at these flea markets, generally held at large convention halls, were made at discounts of up to 80 percent off of the average retail prices.

Sales through mail-order systems were the fastest-growing sector of the computer retail industry in the early 1990s. According to International Data Corp., shipments in mail-order computer sales increased by an average of 75 percent among the industry leaders in 1993. The potential for profit, though, made the mail-order market an increasingly competitive one. In 1993 a previous industry leader in mail-order computer sales, CompuAdd Corp., filed for bankruptcy. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company had been "stung by falling prices and an aggressive marketing war among leading vendors."

Specialty store reaction to this shift in distribution channels was most evident in the actions of industry leaders. In the early 1990s CompuAdd Corp., a PC manufacturer and retailer, converted several of its storefront retail operations into computer superstores. Dell Computer Corp., a PC manufacturer and mail-order retailer, began selling its computers through Soft Warehouse, Inc., a superstore operator. ComputerLand, one of the industry's top three retailers, responded to these changes in the market by converting fifty of its boutique stores into larger mass-market outlets and most of its remaining 380 small stores into direct sales offices.

In 1993 there were 132 companies in this industry in America. The total sales for these companies for that year were $4.3 billion. However, according to the International Data Corp., there were at least another 3,000 small companies, often one-person operations, dealing in computers in the United States; these companies were more difficult for industry analysts to track because entry into the business had become relatively easy with standardized technologies, and such dealers constantly entered and left the business.

Unlike computers, software continued to sell mostly through specialist software retailers. However, this trend began to change as more office supply outlets and department stores carried these products, and the number of computer superstores that sold software increased. In addition, software products became easier to use and therefore did not require the specialty expertise offered at most software retailers.

Specialty software retailers also were affected by the sales of computers with software packages preinstalled by computer manufacturers, a trend that increased with the competition among suppliers. This arrangement shifted the purchasing habits of consumers from the more expensive software previously necessary to operate their computers to less expensive complimentary software that added specialized features, such as tax accounting and computer game packages.

The industry was fast-changing, highly competitive, and technology driven during the mid-1990s. Retailers were profiting little from PC sales, and the market was becoming oversaturated. A fierce battle for market share forced prices down. The rate of returns for PCs was higher than the vendors and retailers desired. Some retailers were even treating PCs as loss leaders.

Personal computer sales dropped to 10 to 15 percent, from 25 to 30 percent, during 1995. Weak sales led to the bankruptcy and closure of many stores. Tandy Corporation was one of the victims, and in 1997 it sold its Incredible Universe and Computer City outlets due to falling sales. Nester Retail Group was another victim and reported its failure to keep up with competition from Circuit City and Best Buy.

Unable to keep up with the increasing competition and continually declining profit margins, Best Buy scaled back its expansion plans. According to The Wall Street Journal, Best Buy attempted to compensate for diminishing gross profits by offering an assortment of noncomputer items that carried larger margins. This move indicated the financial difficulty that large computer retailers were facing.

One trend the industry adopted was to concentrate its marketing efforts on higher-margin computer peripheral equipment, such as printer supplies and cables, as well as providing technical support. Add-ons and accessories, such as tape drives, computer cases, cabling, and joysticks, also were used to make up for the low PC profit margins. Innovative sales strategies for these accessories were adopted.

Software sales also were targets of innovative marketing strategies. CompUSA introduced the software sampler program in 1996 to allow customers to sample software before purchasing it. Companies like Microsoft jumped on the innovative software marketing bandwagon and created in-store boutiques for consumer electronics stores and computer superstores in 1996.

In an industry survey for Computerworld, retail information systems executives revealed their beliefs that the key to their success would be a stronger focus on the consumer, but the average computer shopper would be skeptical of their understanding of this concept. They felt superstores could help customers find products by installing video kiosks throughout the store to give directions.

With the focus on consumers, computer retailers were also becoming increasingly aware that female consumers were purchasing a larger amount of the computer hardware and software that was entering homes. In 1995 women purchased 49.6 percent of the hardware and 32 percent of the software. Women were also influencing the design and looks of computers.

In the late 1990s the computer retail industry was growing by leaps and bounds. Sales in 1998 were up 13.8 percent as PC software sales increased 15.6 percent to $4.6 billion and accessories and supplies increased by 15 percent to $5.3 billion. From a manufacturer's standpoint, U.S. shipments of PCs were expected to be more than 40 million in 1999 and nearly 55 million in 2001.

While the demand for computers increased, profits and revenue were under pressure at retail outlets. With the onset of low-cost home computers, financial statements from stores such as CompUSA did not reflect the increased demand for computers and software. IBM lost $1 billion in 1998 on its PC operations. Some stores shifted gears toward higher-margin goods like digital cameras and home theater equipment.

As pressure increased, stores looked at marketing and advertising campaigns to attract consumers. Circuit City, for example, offered a "Free PC" program in June 1999. By teaming up with CompuServe, the store offered the eMachine for free with mail-in rebates with the stipulation that the customer had to sign a three-year contract for CompuServe Internet Service. These rebate programs became more popular in the late 1990s, and large superstores used them to entice consumers away from smaller stores.

Computer stores also faced competition from the Internet and brand-name manufacturers. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and IBM offered their products online, leaving consumers the choice to avoid the retailer all together. In addition, an increasing number of online sites offered computer goods. According to a 1999 PC Magazine poll, 46 percent of Internet sales were computer related, and Dell Computer Corp. was a favorite among computer shoppers. Software was also a top sales generator in terms of online sales. Software accounted for 6.7 percent of online sales in 1997.

The proliferation of manufacturers into the retail sector was driven by the saturation of the business-to-business market. As corporations and government agencies began to be looked upon as replacement markets, individual consumers and small businesses became targets for manufacturers like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Compaq. In the late 1990s these companies focused on marketing campaigns and strategies that would increase customer awareness of the products they offered.

From the consumer point of view, the increase in technology and decrease in price was beneficial. Prices dropped 10 percent in 1998 when shoppers could purchase a complete system for under $1,000, and prices continued to fall.

Another reason for stagnant desktop sales was the focus of computer manufacturers during the 1990s on increasing processing speed and storage capacity. By the early 2000s many computer owners had all the speed, memory, and storage needed to operate existing software programs. The notebook computer, however, remained promising as prices declined and an increasingly mobile workforce spurred sales. Bucking the industry's downward trend, sales were predicted to grow by nearly 9 percent in 2003.

Computer sales fell early in the twenty-first century, after explosive growth in the 1990s, because of a weakening economy, stiff competition, and price deflation. The industry rebounded slightly in 2003, but the number of computer establishments still reflected a drop from 12,900 in 2000 to 11,100 in 2004. Businesses, which traditionally accounted for more than two-thirds of sales in this industry, began to cut information technology (IT) budgets dramatically. According to a survey of 100 chief information officers conducted by Merrill Lynch & Co. as reported in Business Week in 2003, 63 percent of those surveyed said that their companies were reducing their IT budgets below 5 percent of revenues.

By the mid-2000s the increased influence and market share of online retailers for computers and computer equipment was growing. Large superstores were beginning to overcome their reputation for poor or nonexistent technical support. The industry leader Best Buy, for example, introduced its traveling "Geek Squad," in which a service agent was available for in-store help or even in-house calls.

The superstores continued to drive down prices and strengthen their position in the market, forcing traditional stores to diversify product lines in order to keep up with competition. Small computer specialty stores declined, except in the case of Apple, which introduced potential new customers to Mac products in newly created retail store locations across the country.

Because computer processing speed surpassed software requirements, the short-term future of the industry is expected to revolve around the demand for wireless networking so that all computer and electronic equipment will be seamlessly connected within an in-home or in-office integrated system. As prices decline on handhelds, multipurpose digital phones, and cutting-edge minicomputers, consumers can expect the market to surge in these areas as well. Industry leader CompUSA was turning toward different product offerings, such as software on demand, whereby customers could purchase and download software directly at the store.

Current Conditions

In the late 2000s, computer shipments fell by 8.1 percent during the first-quarter of 2009 compared to the first-quarter of 2008 and a 14.4 percent plunge compared to the fourth-quarter of 2008, a reflection of a stagnant economy. The desktop category experienced the worst performance, declining by as much as 23 percent during the first-quarter of 2009, while notebook shipments increased by 10 percent compared to the first-quarter of 2008. That trend was expected to continue through the remainder of 2009, with netbook shipments rising 14 percent globally.

Sluggish sales prompted Chief Information Officers (CIOs) all over the world to tighten their budgets while riding out the storm. In one survey conducted by market research firm, Gartner found over four in 10 CIOs would trim their IT budgets during the first quarter of 2009. Of the 900 CIOs queried, planned to reduce their IT budgets by about 7.2 percent, while 54 percent of CIOs were making no changes in the IT budget with the remaining.

As credit markets tightened and the economy worsened reinforcing reduced IT spending, both IBM and Hewlett-Packard had to get a little creative and began offering their own options to entice buyers and spur sales during the economic slump. For instance, IBM began offering a 36-month leasing program, while Hewlett-Packard promoted zero percent financing directed at small to medium-sized businesses as a means to loosen their technology budgets. Certainly, while rivals Hewlett-Packard and IBM may be vying for the same IT dollars, computer and computer software stores will benefit as well. "Just as a consumer can get 'more car' by leasing rather than buying, IT managers can get more computing capacity by leasing" Calvin Braunstein of the Robert Frances Group IT research firm told CRN in February 2009.

Elsewhere, specialty retailer Apple never experienced the downward pressure on the economy, which grew its sales 89 percent over a three-year period ending up on Forbes' Fastest Growing Retailers list even as its counterparts remained in the doldrums. In fact, Apple Stores surpassed all U.S. retailers generating the most sales per square foot of retail space.

Superstore, Best Buy stood to lose even more market share as online competition intensified offering the same in-store products, like PCs for less. In one attempt to retain market share, Best Buy had resorted to price matching to compete with big-box giant Wal-Mart, however, some analyst felt it would be difficult to keep up the momentum before cutting into profits.

A possible favorable turn of events for Best Buy occurred when closest competitor, 60-year-old Circuit City filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2009. While there were a couple of possible buyers interested in the troubled company, they were unable to convince their debtors, which ultimately led to the closure of 567 stores shortly thereafter. Some analysts predict Best Buy will gain market share as a result of Circuit City's liquidation, however, others suggested Wal-Mart would gain Circuit City's customers "�especially at a time when Wal-Mart has aggressively built up its stable of name-brand electronics at low prices," cited from The New York Times.

Industry Leaders

CompUSA, headquartered in Dallas, Texas, was the largest computer retailer in the mid-2000s, with revenues in 2003 of $4.7 billion and 225 stores across the United States. In December 2007, however, it was sold to Specialty Equity, an affiliate of the liquidation firm Gordon Brothers Group, which announced it would close 103 U.S. retail stores. In January 2008 CompUSA was acquired by the computer hardware company Systemax, Inc., based in Port Washington, New York, which acquired sixteen remaining CompUSA stores and the company's e-commerce business.

CompUSA, Inc. was founded in 1984 as a provider of software to deep discounters and corporate customers. By any measure the company has been tremendously successful, parlaying a discount sensibility and vast product holdings into a position as an industry leader. In 1988 the company opened its first superstore, and by 1993, it owned forty-five outlets in twenty-eight metropolitan areas and claimed half of the superstore computer market in the United States.

Once nearly bankrupt, CompUSA was a thriving retail chain in the mid-1990s. According to Business Week, part of the company's success rests in its decision to bolster services such as training and support to deal with falling margins in the retail end of the business. CompUSA recorded a $16.8 million loss on $2.1 billion of revenue in 1994, but by the second quarter of the 1997 fiscal year it announced record quarterly earnings of $1.2 billion.

CompUSA bought the Computer City chain from competitor Tandy Corporation in late 1997, but it was unable to make a profit with the chain, which continued to lose money. Increased competition in the industry led CompUSA to weak sales in 1998, and it closed fourteen stores in 1999. In March 2000 the company became a private company after being purchased by Mexico-based retailer Grupo Sanborns, which was working to revamp the computer giant's bottom line. In 2003 CompUSA was adding consumer electronics products to its stores in an effort to stay viable and competitive with the large superstores.

Consumer electronics stores like Best Buy Co., Inc., and Circuit City Stores, Inc., were among the biggest competitors of CompUSA. Best Buy's home office category averaged roughly 35 percent of total sales in the mid-2000s, and its leadership in the computer market was growing. In 2007 Best Buy's revenues were $35.9 billion, and it had 140,000 employees. Circuit City's influence was growing as well, and the company posted 2007 sales of $12.4 billion and had 43,000 employees. Department stores like the discounter Wal-Mart also had competitive computer retail departments focusing on software.

Best Buy Co., Inc.'s chief rival, Circuit City filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2009 that led to total liquidation. After Best Buy reported revenues of $40 billion in 2008, the company grew its revenues to $49.6 billion in 2010 with 180,000 employees.

For the first-quarter of 2009, the top five PC OEMs based on market share were Hewlett-Packard with 19.7 percent; Dell had 13.2 percent; Acer with 11.1 percent; Lenova held 6.7 percent; and Toshiba accounted for 5.2 percent.


In 2004 there were 458,040 people employed by the electronics and appliance store industry as a whole (an increase from 407,000 in 2000), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Within this industry, 84,000 were employed by the computer and software stores sector (a decrease from 106,000 in 2000), receiving a total payroll of $2.3 billion. According to the National Retail Federation, a large percentage of this industry's workforce was made up of sales staff, including managers, with the remainder of the workforce in technical support, marketing, and administration. Retail buyers and merchandise managers in this industry negotiate prices with suppliers and wholesale distributors. Technical support staff handles customers' problems with both computer hardware and software. Computer backgrounds are required for these positions, which results in salaries ranging between $30,000 and $60,000 per year, depending on the type of products sold. Sales workers, who directly service customers, often work on a part-time basis, with a starting salary at minimum wage plus commissions on sales, depending on the store. For retail sales workers at the managerial level, salaries averaged $450.00 per week in the mid-2000s. Stores that did not offer commissions with salaries frequently featured bonus plans as sales incentives.

America and the World

According to the Federal Trade Commission's Office of Consumer and Business Education (OCBE) in the mid-2000s, "reacting to a saturating U.S. market and increasing foreign competition, U.S. suppliers continue to look abroad for sales and expanded market share, with some companies selling as much product overseas as they do domestically. Foreign vendors also seek to become global players, as reflected in the efforts of major Asian suppliers to enlarge their presence in the huge U.S. market." American computer exports were approximately $70 billion in 2003, an increase of nearly 10 percent. Demand was expected to remain strong in Canada and Europe, with the largest PC markets being Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy, as well as in Latin America.

Exports were expected to increase to Asia as the economy there recovered from a recession. Japan has been one of the major exporters of PCs, and computers became more popular there in the late 1990s. Skepticism about the benefits of PCs, limited office space, and prices relatively higher than in the West, made it difficult for American dealers to penetrate this market, but the United States nevertheless has boosted its presence in that area.

Research and Technology

Like other retailing businesses, establishments in this industry have continued to increase their reliance on computers at a physical store level. These have simplified many routine buying functions of retail buyers and have improved the efficiency of in-store sales staff. Many computer and software retailers rely less on sales staff for inventory counts and increasingly on point-of-sale computer terminals, which provide up-to-date inventory and sales information. Point-of-sale data fed into a computer system are taken from the item's bar code and include information such as price, model number, color, and size.

These stores continued to look for ways to make shopping easier for the consumer through advanced technology. For example, Circuit City began using Wyse Winterm Windows-based terminals in the summer of 1999. Offered by Wyse Technology, these terminals allowed consumers to customize computer options by accessing vendor information. Chief Information Officer Dennis Bowman of Circuit City commented that the company "searched for a cost-effective and high-performance solution that would allow us to offer our customers high levels of customer service through our build-to-order kiosk stations and service center applications."

The research and development of new products greatly affects this industry. Technological developments in at the turn of the twenty-first century in computers, communications, and electronics spurred the growth of information and entertainment services. Alliances among different technologies produced inexpensive video, sound, and graphics and text services in digital form and in interactive settings. Products in this combined information and entertainment market are designed for personal, educational, and business purposes, and they have included asynchronous transfer mode equipment and communications and systems software. Industry analysts correctly predicted enormous growth opportunities for this segment of the retail market.

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