Satnav battle heats up as drivers look for new gadgets

Tue Sep 4, 2012 12:58pm EDT

* British market shows signs of U-turn

* TomTom-Garmin rivalry seen heating up in Q4

* Competition from smartphone, free navigation could ease

By Harro Ten Wolde and Tarmo Virki

BERLIN, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Garmin Ltd and TomTom NV are gearing up for battle as the world's two biggest navigation companies plan to lure customers back with new products offering extra features.

Satnav sales have been in decline since 2008 as rivals like Google and Nokia gave away free navigation on smartphones.

Once the darlings of the stock market, TomTom and Garmin have seen the value of their shares drop by more than 90 percent since the end of 2007, when satnav's were the hottest Christmas gifts.

Having tried discounts, Garmin and TomTom are preparing to tempt customers back with newer models. The companies have not said what new features may be included but industry analysts expect to see bigger screens, 3D and photographic images.

GfK Account Director Richard Gregory said TomTom and Garmin have been pushed into action by smartphone sellers.

"The continued threat of cannibalisation from smartphones is driving manufacturers to produce more competitively priced devices with additional innovative features," he said.

The run-up to Christmas will be a crucial test for TomTom and Garmin, who control more than three-quarters of the global market for personal navigation devices (PNDs).

"You are going to see a big drive from us to increase market share in Q4. It will be between us and Garmin," said TomTom's managing director and co-founder Corinne Vigreux.

"We are going to add more things to the product to make it more attractive," she said, stating big discounts were not part of the plan.

TREND REVERSING

The British market, which is often seen as an indicator for trends elsewhere, is already heating up.

Unit sales of PNDs in the British market rose 2 percent from the previous year in July after jumping 7 percent in June, according to data from market researcher GfK. This means the market hasn't shrunk for five consecutive months.

"I am encouraged by that," said TomTom's Vigreux. "The UK is not a market that doesn't understand technology. There is a real demand there."

TomTom was market leader in Europe in the second quarter of this year, with 45 percent of 2.4 million PNDs sold, while Garmin had about 70 percent of the market in the United States.

"There is a big replacement market. The success of the PNDs in the last four years; those customers are coming back," said Stefan Bernard, head of Garmin Germany.

But Bernard also said it would be difficult to reverse the longer-term declining trend of the global market.

"We believe that the PND market is still in a decline but not at as fast a pace as it used to be," Bernard said.

Garmin expects that the global PND market will decline 1015 percent this year, while TomTom is aiming for revenue of 1.10 billion euros, down from 1.27 billion euros in 2011.

TomTom's Vigreux said he also expects to be battling in a shrinking g lobal market.

As PND sales faltered, the bright spot for Garmin has been the growing popularity of its outdoor and fitness products such as watches with global positioning system sensors, golfing accessories with pre-loaded courses and fitness applications.

At the same time TomTom has focused on getting its navigation systems into cars in collaboration deals with vehicle manufacturers who are increasingly installing satnav.

Of 16 analysts tracking TomTom stock, three have a 'strong buy' recommendation, seven rate the shares 'hold', while six have the stock at 'sell' or 'strong sell', according to StarMine. Garmin has four 'strong buy' or 'buy' recommendations, eight rate the stock 'hold' and one 'sell'.

"I don't know whether there will be a new wow-experience, but navigation is at the core at everybody's life, either in the car or on the smartphone. There will always be a market for it. Will there be a wow? I don't know," said Garmin's Bernard.

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