Bad economy takes pizzazz out of CES

LAS VEGAS Fri Jan 9, 2009 6:22pm EST

1 of 27. Show-goers pass through the lobby of the Las Vegas Convention Center during the first day of the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 8, 2009. The consumer technology trade show runs through January 11 and is expected to attract 2,700 exhibitors and 130,000 attendees.

Credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

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LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Vast, empty spaces in the middle of the show floor. Knots of uniformed salespeople standing idly next to flickering screens. A slow-moving crowd drifting from one display to the next.

Can this really be the much-touted Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the premier global technology showcase that in years past has been described as a war zone, a zoo, an unrivaled extravaganza?

"There seems to be less buzz," said Susan Boyce, an executive with a major U.S. software developer. "This is the big day, I would have thought."

"I've had other times when there are so many people it's hard to walk around."

Not so at midday on Thursday, typically the peak period for a show that 130,000 people registered to attend this year.

It's no surprise the show has lost some of its luster with the global economy deteriorating, the U.S. in deep recession and consumer spending on electronics forecast by the Consumer Electronics Association to slip 0.6 percent in 2009.

Sales promoters on the show floor were beseeching bystanders to come into their booths, and public relations personnel camped near the entryway to try to entice visitors.

At the junctions of the Microsoft Corp, Motorola Inc and Intel Corp booths -- arguably the biggest concentration of global tech names -- promoters in black-and-white sweaters talked to each other.

"It's a very sobering and conservative reaction to the economy," said Tom Dixon, vice president of marketing at DTS, which crafts digital sound standards and whose ubiquitous logo graces everything from cinema banners to DVD packaging.

"We're a strong industry, but we're very responsible, too."

Gone was the ear-splitting rock music and most of the models in neon mini-skirts, though inevitably a few were around the halls.

To be sure, celebrities were in attendance. Oscar-winning Tom Hanks, R&B crooner Usher and baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson attended a keynote speech by Sony Corp Chief Executive Howard Stringer, the event with the highest star-wattage.

But even they failed to drum excitement into the annual show, which is usually a feast of eye-catching technology for consumers and retailers, from 150-inch giant TV screens to auditorium-sized sound systems.

"Last time? It wasn't like this," said Sergio Garcia of USA Color Minilab, a buyer and second-time CES attendee.

This year, manufacturers went smaller, not just in their presentation but also in their product. Sony debuted the world's lightest 8-inch notebook computer, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd touted 1-inch thick, energy-efficient screens, and LG Electronics Inc demonstrated a Bond-style watch that doubled as a mobile phone.

Sharif Hagazy, a buyer for solar power tech firm ECOSOL, said he noticed the same scaling-back at other trade shows. "It's been like this the past six months," he said.

Sales pitches have also changed. Where corporations before touted the best and most expensive gadgets, many were now extolling the power-saving features of their newest products.

DTS, which in 2008 wowed audiences with a $200,000, state-of-the-art sound system in a 50 feet-by-60-feet hall, this year drew visitors into a sound-proof, living-room sized space and showed off a system that could go for as low as $5,000.

"About time," muttered one veteran show-attendee at the back of the demo room.

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