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10 ways tech gets hurt by the consumer slowdown

As expected, the retail sales numbers released today were indeed horrible. What does that mean for the tech sector?

First, how bad were the retail sales numbers?

According to the Census Bureau retail sales report for September, estimated monthly sales for retail and food services on a seasonally adjusted basis fell 1.2% last month from the previous month. This is the biggest monthly percentage decline in more than three years. It is also represents a 1% drop from September 2007.

According to the New York Times, MasterCard reported last week that spending on consumer electronics and home appliances dropped 13.8 percent in September compared with a year ago. That number is by far the largest recorded since MasterCard began tracking the category in 2003, and twice the largest previous monthly drop in such spending.

Given that consumer spending accounts for 70 percent or more of economic growth, the tech sector cannot escape the impact. And based in the MasterCard report, consumer electronics is reflecting a disproportionate amount of the consumer slowdown.

Impacts on the tech sector --

Here are some of my quick thoughts on the subject. Though some of these companies are quite large and operate in both consumer and enterprise segments, the problems in consumer spending will nevertheless serve to drag down overall company performance.

Internet impacts --

1. Companies that fund advertising targeted at consumers will more than likely see budgets shrink. The big advertising networks that manage all these ads will be impacted. Impacted companies include ValueClick (VCLK) and Omniture (OMTR). Note that Yahoo (YHOO), Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) and Time Warner (TWX) all own huge ad networks.

2. The web sites that display all those ads will be hit by a double whammy. First, there will be fewer ads to host. Second, a belt-tightening consumer will be reluctant to click on those banner or search ads. Both will serve to reduce revenues for the web sites. Impacted companies: all the big portals like Yahoo, Google, Time Warner (their AOL property) as well as too many other sites to name.

3. For some reason, everyone still considers Amazon (AMZN) and eBay to be tech stocks. If consumers aren't buying, these companies will get hurt like regular brick and mortar retailers. Which makes me wonder: will Circuit City (CC) survive into 2009?

Semiconductors --

4. If gadgets are going unsold, the demand for semiconductors will fall off a cliff. Semiconductor companies whose products tend to go into consumer devices include large companies like Micron Technologies (MU), AMD, Intel (INTC) and Qualcomm (QCOM) as well as dozens of small companies too numerous to mention.

5. If semiconductor companies have excess capacity, the semiconductor equipment companies are dead meat. The big three in this sector are Applied Materials (AMAT), KLA-Tencor (KLAC) and Lam Research (LRCX)

6. With cell phone penetration high in the developed world and growing quickly in emerging markets, the handset makers are sure to feel a slowdown. Impacted companies: Nokia (NOK), Sony-Ericsson, already faltering Motorola (MOT) and maybe even Research in Motion (RIMM) will finally feel some pressure.

PCs and gadgets --

7. Intel sold a lot of processors last quarter. Some of the PCs those chips went into will be left sitting in warehouses when the Christmas selling season is done. Impacted companies: Dell, HP (HPQ), maybe Apple (AAPL) as well as those companies that make PC peripherals like Lexmark (LXK).

8. The market for MP3 players is dominated by the Apple iPod. SanDisk and Microsoft are basically second-tier. With the millions already sold and the market penetration that has already occurred, it is not unlikely that strapped consumers might decide that they don't really need to upgrade.

9. Also dominated by Apple is the smart phone sector. The iPhone is more expensive than a typical phone but it creates extreme loyalty and rabid demand. It may actually come through this consumer downturn with little damage. Competitors, however, may not be so lucky. All the handset companies (see number 6 above) are attempting to field an alternative to the iPhone. It is unfortunate that they are finding themselves in the middle of a recession while trying to introduce new products intended to unseat the market leader.

10. A popular gadget recently has been the global positioning system. This is not exactly something consumers need more than gasoline or food food for the table. Like many discretionary gadgets, GPS sales could easily slump in today's environment. In the U.S., the primary company that feel the impact would be Garmin (GRMN).

Conclusion --

The is by no means an exhaustive list of impacts or companies. Hopefully it helps to put the situation in perspective as you attempt to identify what stocks should be avoided or embraced during a time when the consumer appears to be pulling back.

If you would like to add to this list, please leave a comment.


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