Dell, Best Buy outlook darkens

September 16, 2008: 11:30 AM ET

By Scott Moritz

If Dell's (DELL) view is right, the tech spending hiatus that started in July isn't ending anytime soon.

Less than a week after Dell warned that a U.S. slowdown in information technology spending was spreading to Europe and Asia, the No.2 computer maker now says the slump is getting worse.

"We saw some weakness in July, and August is always slow," Dell CFO Brian Gladden said at a Bank of America investor conference Tuesday. "By the second week in September, we started getting the sense that this isn't coming back the way we expected it to," Gladden said. Earlier Tuesday, the company issued a statement that it was "seeing further softening of demand in global end-user demand in the current quarter."

Dell shares tumbled 10% to a new seven-year low after the company gave its latest grim assessment of the business climate. Outlining the areas of weakness, Gladden pointed out that in the U.S., spending by small and medium-sized businesses is down, and the financial sector, currently in a credit crisis swoon, was a bit challenging. "There's not a lot of IT spending going on in the financial businesses," Gladden said.

Overall big business spending, which accounts for about 80% of Dell's revenue, was "mixed but weaker than we expected in the aggregate," Gladden said.

Internationally, the U.K. remained a tough environment, Germany had been solid but turned weak in recent weeks and sales in China, which had been slow during the Olympics, had not snapped back as expected, said Gladden.

Tech investors have taken some confidence from the relative good health and solid spending in growing markets outside the U.S. And Wall Street's deepening woes, while significant, had not had a dramatic effect on the larger IT market. At least not yet.

But as Dell tells it, cash-hoarding corporate customers aren't exactly ignoring the drama of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy protection and AIG's financing crisis.

Tuesday's news on the consumer side, where Dell has made efforts to be a bigger player, wasn't very encouraging either.

Best Buy (BBY), which has been selling Dell computers since last December, blamed its disappointing earnings Tuesday on higher costs and a dip in consumer spending as fuel and food prices rise. "We have some work to do in terms of managing our expenses amid a challenging macro economic environment,'' Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson said in a press release.

Dell's shift to a retail strategy isn't well-timed. Since founder Michael Dell's return to the top job in early 2007, Dell has attempted to shift from its online, made-to-order PC-maker approach to more of a retail PC supplier. As part of the effort, the company says it has already eliminated two factories, including one in Austin, Tex.

Dell is looking to cut more costs and has been shopping its manufacturing plants around as part of an attempt to move more of its manufacturing to partners. The company is about one year into a three-year cost-cutting plan and is expected to have reached its target of eliminating 8,900 employees by the end of this quarter.

Asked if the company was considering a quicker move to bring down expenses, Gladden said: "We are taking a fresh look at all those costs given the environment."

The news comes a day after PC rival Hewlett Packard announced that it would cut 24,600 people, or 7%, of its combined EDS and HP workforce. Nearly half of those workers targeted are in the United States. HP plans to replace some of those workers with employees in other countries as part of its globalization plan.

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