Holiday Shoppers Gifting Themselves

Now that we’re fully in the throes and craziness of the holiday shopping season—just seven shopping days left until Christmas!—it seems appropriate to further investigate how the process really works, especially when it comes to electronics purchases. In fact, I’ve always been curious to not only know what items are hot sellers each year, but what drove the purchase decisions. The common perception, of course, is that most holiday shopping outings have an intended gift recipient in mind. But recent research just completed—the first report created by my new firm, TECHnalysis Research—reveals that many of the electronics purchases made in the early part of the holiday season are actually for the buyers themselves.

Specifically, in a survey of 401 US consumers aged 18-74, we found that a full 50% of electronics purchases made on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday—either in retail stores or online—were for me. Well, not actually me, really, but the “me” of the shopper who made the purchase. The chart below summarizes the basic results.


Perhaps not surprisingly, women were a bit more generous than us guys, with only 47% of female’s purchases being for themselves vs. 47% being gift purchases and the remaining 6%—like the total numbers—a “non-gift” purchase for others. Men, on the other hand, listed 52% of holiday electronics purchases as being for themselves, 42% as gifts for others and 6% as “non-gift” purchases for others. Clearly, lots of tech shoppers wait for and specifically target these huge shopping days for their purchases—either that, or the spirit of Uncle Scrooge is perhaps a bit more alive today than many of us would like to admit. But I digress…

The top-selling items among survey respondents were large-sized tablets (those with screen sizes greater than 8”), followed by game consoles, small-screen tablets (under 8” screen sizes), PC accessories and smartphone accessories. The chart below lists the top ten of the 19 categories that were covered. The x-axis represents the % of respondents who made a purchase in that category.


Of those purchases that were made as gifts, the top category was actually small tablets, which makes sense given their lower prices, followed by larger tablets and game consoles. Interestingly, the top category for both personal purchases and as “non-gift” purchases was PC accessories—which covers things like USB drives, speakers, keyboards, mice, cases, printers and more.

In terms of buyer rationale, 57% of the purchases were considered “net new” devices, and 43% were replacements for existing devices, though the numbers ranged fairly significantly based on the category of device. For example, 75% of small tablets were considered new purchases, whereas only 32% of desktop PCs were additions to the household.

An interesting statistic regarding the new category of smart watches and other wearable devices was that only 45% were considered new and 55% were replacements. To be fair, the sample size for that group was only a modest (and not statistically reliable) 11 purchases. Still, it suggests either that early purchasers of those devices were not happy with their first choice, or that it’s the same people who keep buying many of the different options now available. Only time will tell….

Another interesting statistic from the study relates to the manner (and location) in which the purchase occurred. For online shoppers, which were intentionally just over half of the total respondents, 45% of purchases on Thanksgiving or Black Friday were made on mobile devices—either tablets or smartphones—while that number was 39% for Cyber Monday purchases. Additionally, 11% of all online purchases made on either Thanksgiving or Black Friday were done while the individual was mobile—either while shopping, while travelling, or at another public location, such as a café. If there was ever a question about the impact that mobile devices have had on people’s lives—let alone their shopping—these data points clearly show it.

If you’re interested in learning more, you’re welcome to download a free copy of the top-level results from the study at the TECHnalysis Research sample deliverables page.

Multi-Device, Multi-Platform, Companion Apps

The heart and soul of any good piece of application software—regardless of the device on which it runs—is its ability to allow you to achieve a task, find a piece of information or essentially get something done. Well-written software is built from a solid awareness of the steps that go into achieving a particular outcome and provides the features and functions that an end user needs and/or wants to follow those steps and attain their desired goal—whether that’s creating a digital work of art, chasing dragons, or finding directions to your favorite restaurant.

Most applications are, understandably, designed to achieve all of those tasks on their own—that is, all the functions necessary to complete the desired goal lives within the software itself—although it may access external data sources—and runs on the device for which the application was written. One notable exception to this rule is software plug-ins, which can provide additional functionality to a “host” application environment: for example, image filtering tools for Adobe Photoshop or audio processing add-ons for digital audio workstation software like Cakewalk’s Sonar or Apple’s Logic. Plug-ins, however, run within the same environment and on the same device as the home program.

A more important trend that is starting to emerge is the arrival of multi-device, multi-platform companion applications. These are apps that run on devices other than the host, yet work hand-in-hand with the host application, allowing the separate devices to more easily or more fully achieve a task than either device could do on its own. These types of apps represent a potentially huge new opportunity for app developers on all types of platforms that, I believe, could transform the world of mobile—and PC—software. For one thing, they allow applications—and individuals—to easily cross the gap between different platforms and devices. Want an Android or iOS app that truly works with your Windows PC? No problem—at least conceptually.

In fact, because companion apps acknowledge and embrace the multi-device, multi-platform reality that we virtually all now live with every day, they represent an exciting path for the future. Plus, they avoid the all too common problem of trying to adapt a popular application on one device to another by just building a cut-down—or beefed up—version of the app for the new device. A well-conceived, well-written companion application takes advantage of the unique capabilities, input characteristics and other functions of each platform, and yet lets you more fully achieve or enjoy the task at hand with your set of devices. (Plus, it doesn’t worry about the tedious process of porting or trying to duplicate functionality on another device that isn’t ideally suited for it.) In a word, it makes these often disjointed set of devices and experiences work as a system.

For example, as a musician who writes and arranges songs for my band, I’ve been using MakeMusic’s Finale application on a Windows PC for literally decades. But about a year-and-a-half ago, the company introduced Finale SongBook for the iPad, which takes the music notation files created on a PC and lets you view them digitally on an iPad—turning that iOS-based device into an easily searchable, highly readable digital music library and music stand. It’s a great example of achieving a higher level of capability by extending the functionality of a core application across devices and platforms. A completely different example is DreamWorks’ new Dragons Adventure game for Nokia’s new Windows RT-based Lumia tablets. The game features a clever integration of Nokia’s navigation data into the environment, but even more importantly, DreamWorks also created a Windows Phone-based application that parents can use to build environments or tweak other settings that can be sent over to the game running on the tablet. It’s a simple, yet highly effective way to get the devices—and the people using those devices—working together.

Now, you could argue that companion applications aren’t a completely new idea—but I will counter that mobile-focused, cross-platform, functionality-optimized apps are a relatively recent phenomena and one that I believe will have some exciting and important new entrants in 2014.

Aisle Check

As a technology industry analyst, I spend a lot of time on airplanes both domestically and internationally—demonstrated by my freshly minted United Airlines Premiere Million Miler Card. On the majority of those flights, I make a point to walk up and down the aisles of the plane, glancing at what types of devices people are using. While it certainly doesn’t qualify as a rigorous or scientific research methodology, I find it to be a fascinating way to see what’s hot and what’s not. It’s also an interesting way to get a sense of not only what people have bought, but what they actually find important enough to carry with them and use.

Over the last few years—probably to no one’s surprise—I’ve seen a lot of tablets, most of them featuring a fruit logo on their shiny silver back side. People were using their iPads to watch movies, play games, read e-mails and even run other kinds of applications. I’ve seen a few other tablets too—often Kindle Fires—as well as a reasonable number of black-and-white eReaders, like Barnes & Noble Nooks as well as black and white Kindles, and a reasonable sampling of smartphones of different brands. Other than eBooks, most all of these other tablets were used almost exclusively to watch videos, from what I could tell, whereas the smartphones were primarily used to play games. Interestingly, for a long time, it seemed like the odd man out was actually the notebook PC.

But things have changed quite a bit over the last 18 months or so. Now, as I walk down the aisles of my flights what I see primarily are notebooks—and lots of them. The number of tablets—while still reasonable—has made a noticeable decline, particularly as a percentage of the total devices in use. I’m not quite sure when this phenomena started, but during my last several trips I was actually surprised by how many notebooks there were in active use—with most all of them being used for work purposes: e-mail, presentations, spreadsheets and other types of business-focused applications. Now, this could just be a reflection of people focusing more on work as the economy improves, but I actually think it portends a bit of a renaissance for business notebook PCs. Indeed, the most recent US commercial PC shipment numbers from big data houses like IDC and Gartner show several quarters of positive growth—this after several years of declines.

The mix of notebooks in use is interesting as well. The vast majority are traditional clamshell form factor Windows 7-based PCs and a fair number of them appear to be very non-Ultrabook like (a polite way of saying pretty big and thick). Of course you’ll also see a decent number of Macbooks (both Pros and Airs), a few Windows XP-based systems and an increasing number of Windows 8/8.1-based PCs—though I’ve seen very little touch-based usage. I’ve also yet to see very many 2-in-1 devices which, in theory at least, are attempting to bridge the gap between notebooks and tablets. All told, it’s frankly a pretty fair reflection of today’s total PC installed base.

But the key point here is that—far from being dead—business notebooks appear to be very much on the rise. It’s almost as if after people finished their initial tablet “flings,” they’ve rediscovered the practical value a notebook offers—particularly for business travel. That’s not to say PCs won’t continue to see challenges from tablets, phablets and other interesting new form factors, but it’s going to be interesting to watch how the device wars continue to evolve. If you want to see where things are headed yourself, just do an aisle check of your own on your next flight.