Overseas sales could revive Apple

February 26, 2008: 8:00 AM ET
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Apple YTD

Can Apple regain its status as a Wall Street darling?

So far 2008 has not been kind to the technology trendsetter. With U.S. iPod sales slowing and iPhone hype fading, investors have been seized by worries that the crew in Cupertino isn't much of a growth story anymore. The stock has fallen 40 percent from its recent highs, losing some $50 billion in market value --and it isn't clear what could turn things around.

It does seem certain that major relief won't come from Apple's (AAPL) newest products. This week's update of the MacBook laptop line adds speed and memory, but no breathtaking design touches. The super-slim but pricey MacBook Air laptop that CEO Steve Jobs unveiled in January has met with mixed reviews, and won't provide enough of a boost to make up for the iPod slowdown. And Apple TV, the second incarnation of Apple's failed attempt to bring digital downloads to the television, doesn't seem to be attracting an iPod-like following either; on Amazon (AMZN), it's about as popular as a niche backup hard drive.

So where will Apple go for a sales boost to lift its stock? Perhaps overseas.

Even as U.S. tech spending slows, the market for high-tech gear and the opportunity for Apple to grow, is rapidly expanding in Europe and Asia. To wit: Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Mark Hurd noted last week that emerging markets accounted for nearly half of the industry's PC shipments at the end of 2007, and well over half of the growth.

Those stats should be particularly encouraging to Apple because they suggest there's opportunity that the company hasn't yet tapped. While the Mac maker had an impressive holiday season in the U.S., ranking third in overall PC shipments behind Dell (DELL) and HP according to IDC, Apple came in seventh in the global rankings. That suggests the company has plenty of room for improvement in Europe and Asia.

IDC analyst Richard Shim points out that Apple must increasingly look to Europe and Asia in an uncertain year for U.S. consumer spending. "A lot of their growth is coming from these other regions," he says "If the consumer market starts to back up as a result of the dour economic scene right now, they could face some serious challenges."

International expansion has long been part of Apple's plan. The company plans to open its first retail store in China this year, and to open one in Australia as well. Apple might also have its eye on Europe, where retail remains a largely untapped possibility; while Apple has 13 stores in the United Kingdom and one in Italy, the company lacks a company-owned retail presence anywhere else on the continent. With a higher profile there, Apple might drive even more sales; in the quarter that ended 2007, Apple reported that net sales in Europe grew twice as fast as in the United States.

Indeed, when I caught up to Apple vice president Greg Joswiak during the holiday season, he had international markets on the brain. On the phone from a Paris hotel, the iPod and iPhone marketing chief stressed the strategic importance of consumers outside the U.S. He seemed particularly interested in countries where Apple's share of the MP3 player market was less than 30 percent.

"That's a significant opportunity because not only can we grow share, but we don't have, in any of these markets, an incumbent to beat," Joswiak said. "We're actually competing against 'Other' – the off-brands that somebody's trying to sell only on price, and not establishing any value in the market."

It's a good thing, too, because it's those overseas consumers who are still buying. In Apple's most recent conference call with analysts, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook said U.S. iPod unit sales were flat year-over-year during the holidays, and it took strong international sales to help Apple meet its targets. In an apparent attempt to stoke volume in 2008, Apple introduced a pink iPod nano in time for Valentine's Day, and dropped the price of the iPod nano.

And Apple's computers are selling, too. According to IDC, worldwide Mac shipments jumped 37.8 percent in 2007, outpacing the industry.

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