| SAN FRANCISCO
SAN FRANCISCO As U.S. demand for personal computers craters, Apple Inc is getting a boost from overseas PC sales, where iPods are hugely popular but Macs have not been a major presence.
Although analysts see the international market as fertile ground for Macs, they say the growth momentum may be tough to maintain due to the spreading economic gloom, Mac's higher price point and smaller retail distribution network.
Mac shipments in the December quarter grew 16 percent internationally and a mere 2 percent in the United States. Mac sales made up more than 40 percent of Apple's revenue in fiscal 2008.
"You're just seeing internationally that the Apple platform message is starting to resonate," said Kaufman Bros. analyst Shaw Wu. However, he noted that Apple continues to resist a move to substantially cheaper PCs, making it more difficult to win over converts in some emerging markets.
The MacBook laptop starts at $999, more than double the price of so-called netbooks, the stripped down, mini-laptops that have seen explosive growth all over the world.
Apple enjoys fat margins on Macs, which the company has not been willing to sacrifice to move down market. Wu estimates Mac's margins at around 25 to 35 percent, twice the overall average for PC vendors.
Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs has pointedly dismissed netbooks, even though Sanford Bernstein estimates 35.5 million netbooks will be sold in 2012, making up 30 percent of overall consumer PC laptop sales.
Needham & Co analyst Charlie Wolf said he does not expect the company to play in lower-priced markets in order to generate unit growth overseas.
"Dropping price is the worst thing you can do .... It would destroy Apple's margin structure," he said. "International could help Apple in the March quarter, but it could be nominal, simply because the world's in a recession."
FEWER POINTS OF SALE THAN COMPETITORS
PC makers are being stung in what is expected to be a long and steep downturn. Consumer demand began to plunge last fall in tandem with the market turmoil.
Gartner said Monday it expects PC shipments to fall 11.9 percent in 2009, their sharpest fall ever, with sales in emerging markets contracting for the first time.
Apple's retail stores are key to its expansion efforts, allowing the company to more effectively shape the shopping experience. Retail sales accounted for roughly one-fifth of Mac unit sales last quarter.
Mac's stronghold is the United States, where Apple has more than 200 retail stores. It was the No. 4 PC maker in the December quarter with a 7.2 percent market share, according to research group Gartner. Its ranks only seventh globally with a share of less than half that.
"For Apple, there still is a fair amount of international opportunity that's untapped at this point," said Broadpoint AmTech analyst Brian Marshall.
Marshall believes Apple can replicate the strategy overseas that it has used effectively at home: generate buzz and get Macs into the hands of consumers who have never used one.
But although Apple's online store is popular, Mac's global retail presence is smaller than that of competitors, with 12,000 points of sale. Top PC maker Hewlett-Packard Co has 80,000 outlets, while No. 2 Dell Inc has 24,000.
The iPod is available at around 50,000 spots globally, and Apple products can be found in dozens of countries through major resellers such as Best Buy, Fnac, Dixons and Bic Camera.
Gartner analyst Charles Smulders said nine of out 10 of Mac sales are in mature markets -- Western Europe, the United States and Japan. He said Mac has a strong presence in important markets like the United Kingdom -- where it has 20 retail stores -- France and Japan, but is weak in countries like Germany, where it has only one store.
Apple, which has more than 250 stores in 10 countries, plans to open 25 new ones in fiscal 2009, with about half being international. About 46.7 million people visited its stores in the December quarter.
Apple declined to comment for this story.
(Reporting by Gabriel Madway; editing by Richard Chang)