Macs grabbed more than a quarter of all U.S. consumer personal computer sales at retail in the 10-week stretch from July 4 to Sept. 1, a research firm said this week.
During that traditionally brisk, nay critical, sales season -- back-to-school is second only to the holidays in the U.S. for compute sales -- Apple's Mac line accounted for 26.8% of all retail sales to consumers, according to the NPD Group. That share was up 11% from the same period in 2013, when the Mac owned a share of 24.2%.
Stephen Baker of NPD cited the price cuts earlier this year to the MacBook Air line -- Apple's most popular notebook -- for the increase in Mac sales. "It's pretty hard to see what else may have caused it," Baker said.
In April, Apple dropped prices of the MacBook Air by $100, and for the first time offered a sub-$900 Air. The 11-in. notebook sells for $899 to consumers, $849 to students and parents of students.
Meanwhile, Chromebooks, notebooks powered by Google's browser-based Chrome OS, pushed their share from 3.3% in 2013 to 4.5% this year, a 36% jump.
The growth of those alternatives came at the expense of Windows PC sales, which dropped about 6%, slipping from a 72.3% share in 2013 to 68.4% in 2014.
Total personal computer sales, however, were up almost 3% for the 10 weeks compared to last year, a reversal from 2013 when sales were down 2.5% from the year prior.
That matches what other research firms have said this year: While earlier predictions for 2014 had been dismal, stronger-than-expected sales have changed forecasting models. Analysts now expect a PC rebound in the second half of the year, those sales largely triggered by consumers shifting discretionary dollars from tablets back to PCs, which in many homes are aging, having been ignored since 2010 when tablets like the iPad stormed into the mass market.
The U.S. consumer retail sales that NPD tracked this summer may be the start of that refresh cycle.
"I think what we're seeing is an investment in the PC market by brands and suppliers that believe investing is going to produce some kind of positive result for them, but not for their competitors," said Baker.
The "investment" Baker talked about was additional price cuts. In the last three weeks of the back-to-school sales season, the Windows notebook ASP (average selling prices) fell to $441, an 8% decline from last year. The ASP of the cheapest models -- those under $300, priced to compete directly with Chromebooks -- dropped by 11% to just $242.
On the macro level, that race to the bottom seems foolish, but as Baker pointed out, every OEM believes that they will come out the winner in the struggle for market share, and somehow make it up on volume.
"This is a pretty mature market, and one of the easiest and most effective ways to change the conversation in a mature market is to do something on price," Baker argued.
Baker expected that the price cuts would resume during the end-of-year holiday sales season, again because OEMs and suppliers, the latter including Microsoft with its Windows OS, believe that market share is up for grabs.
Although Windows PC OEMs "will already tell you that they're pretty far down there" on margins, Baker said that with even more aggressive subsidies from Microsoft -- which kicks marketing money OEMs' way -- consumers will see lots of PCs in the $199 to $249 range during the holidays.
"Black Friday we'll see some pretty aggressive prices in a lot of categories, including PCs," Baker said.
Much of Microsoft's efforts to drive prices down stems from the threat it perceives from Chromebooks. "They're being very aggressive on entry-level devices, and have put a stake in the ground," said Baker.
But by doing so, Microsoft has adopted not only a risky strategy, but has repudiated the marketing message it had relied on for the last two years.
"They've spent the last two years talking about how important touch was," said Baker, of Microsoft's pitch that Windows 8's touch-first strategy was the future of PCs. "Now, they're going back and telling us that what's important is devices with the full Windows."
Although NPD said that during back-to-school, 2-in-1 convertible notebooks -- those with non-detachable displays that can twist and rotate to be used as a touch tablet -- accounted for 13% of all Windows sales by unit volume, the push towards lower prices has effectively abandoned traditional clamshell-style laptops that feature touch screens. Those notebooks were once Microsoft's emphasis.
"There's lots of growth in traditional non-touch notebooks, and lots of touch in an interesting new device form factor [in convertibles], but there's a shrinking market for what we expected would be the mainstream, touch-enabled clamshells," said Baker.