After two years of slow sales, Chromebooks are beginning to catch on.
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Google is expanding the availability of its Chromebooks by offering them at 6,600 retail stores, three times as many as had previously been selling the devices.
The company has added Wal-Mart and Staples as retail partners, raising the likelihood that it will be able to create a meaningful market for Chrome OS hardware.
Wal-Mart will be selling the latest Acer Chromebook, which includes a 16-GB SSD and lists for $199. The retail chain also offers the Samsung Chromebook for $249 through its website.
Staples, meanwhile, will begin offering Chromebooks from Acer, HP and Samsung in 1,500 of its stores, starting this weekend. It also sells the devices through its website and, for businesses, through its Staples Advantage B2B program.
In the months ahead, Google says that Fry's, Office Depot, OfficeMax and TigerDirect stores will begin selling Chromebooks.
Outside the U.S., Chromebooks are sold in 10 other markets, and retail availability will also improve there. In the U.K., more than 100 Tesco stores will join Dixons as Chromebook retailers. Mediamarket and Saturn stores are selling them in the Netherlands. In France, the devices are available through FNAC. In Sweden, Elgiganten offers them. And in Australia, Chromebooks can be found at JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman stores.
Google declined to provide Chromebook sales figures, consistent with its policy since June 2011, when the first Acer and Samsung Chromebooks were introduced. But there's reason to believe consumers are actually buying the devices.
First, Amazon.com reports that Samsung's third-generation Chromebook has remained in the top 100 of its laptop best seller list for the past 235 days. It is presently the top-selling laptop at Amazon.com.
Second, there's Acer's report earlier this year that its C7 Chromebook accounted for between 5% and 10% of the company's U.S. computer sales during November and December 2012.
Assuming the company's U.S. sales over two months represent two-thirds of its total U.S. PC shipments over the three-month quarter, estimates for U.S. unit shipments during the period come to between 538,010 (IDC) and 923,142 (Gartner). So 5% to 10% of that would be put Acer's Chromebook sales at somewhere between 26,900 and 92,314 Chromebooks, if we rather generously assume that every PC shipment represented a PC sale.
Finally, Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Group, said in a phone interview that through consumer channels in the U.S., Chromebooks represent between 20% and 25% of the under-$300 notebook market, a segment that accounts for about 15% to 20% of the overall U.S. notebook market.
During Q1 2013, the U.S. consumer portable market amounted to 5.2 million shipments, according to IDC analyst Jay Chou. That suggests somewhere between 156,000 and 260,000 Chromebooks are shipped every quarter, with actual unit sales somewhere below unit shipments.
Baker said the under-$300 notebook segment "is growing pretty rapidly," which isn't true for the broader PC market. The global PC market during the first quarter of 2013 declined 11.2% compared to the same period a year earlier, according to research firm Gartner. In Q1 2013, the U.S. consumer portable segment declined 14.19% compared to the same period a year earlier, according to IDC.
As to why Chromebooks appear to be popular at a time when PC sales overall are declining, Baker said, "A big part of it is price."
This may explain why Google's high-end Chromebook Pixel ($1,299/$1,449) is not being offered in Wal-Mart stores or other retail outlets.
A growing number of consumers, Baker said, appear to be choosing Chromebooks over low-cost Android tablets. "Since the last set of Chromebooks came out in October, we've seen a dramatic shift in the market," he said.
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