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IT Retail Spending Up, Hardware on Hold

  |  March 24, 2003   |  Comments

Forecasts indicate that 2003 will be a year of spending moderately in the retail sector, but on the hardware front, uncertainty and frustration reign supreme.

A study of IT spending by the retail industry says things are starting to turn around just a bit, and that 2003 will see modest spending increases and the beginning of a compound annual growth rate going forward of 5.3 percent.

The study by Framingham, Mass.-based research and consulting firm IDC predicts that IT spending by the U.S. retail industry will reach $29.6 billion by 2007.

In 2002, such spending actually declined by 3.4 percent, so such growth would be a welcome turnaround for IT vendors, who are now facing up to the new reality that the days of dizzying, double-digit quarterly growth in IT spending are over and done with.

"The retail industry ended 2002 much weaker than it began the year," said Christopher Boone, program manager for IDC's United States IT Opportunity: Retail and Wholesale program. "IT budgets were negatively impacted as the year progressed and retailers struggled to manage costs and meet profit goals. ... [But] despite the setback in 2002, we expect retail IT spending to resume growth in 2003 and beyond."

For IT vendors with products oriented toward the retail sector, both online and offline, IDC said it recommend that sales efforts include efforts to identify solutions that improve a retailer's margins and can be implemented relatively quickly with a measurable return on investment (ROI).

Vendors can also search out business units that benefit from IT projects to get their financial support, the report says.

E-commerce, meanwhile, continues to get a slightly larger share of the retail pie – a report from comScore Media Metrix said that weekly online sales were up 21.9 percent year-over year for the week ending March 9, 2003.

On the hardware front, uncertainty and frustration reign supreme, according to a Deutsche Bank study, as CIOs and salespeople wait patiently for the recovery to pick up. A survey suggests that the flood of IT spending predicted for the first quarter of 2003 has slowed to a mere trickle.

Analysts with Deutsche Bank Securities say computer salespeople polled best described the first quarter of 2003 as a period of "uncertainty and frustration" when it comes to orders for servers, workstations, PCs and related hardware.

The survey, conducted during March 2003, included calls to salesmen at IBM, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and Dell Computer, as well as a smattering of other companies.

Among their findings was that January appeared to be somewhat promising, but February was relatively weak. March's usual closings are of concern mainly due to the conflict in Iraq.

Overall, salesmen characterized customers and CIOs as taking a "wait and see" approach, noting that many CIOs vividly remember the budget cuts of 2001 and the problems they caused. Thus, even with current approved budgets, Deutsche Bank found CIOs are "spending gingerly" in the same way they did at the end of last year.

As for the outlook for the next three months, much of it will depend on world events. Of those polled, 30 percent are expecting a pick-up while 50 percent wouldn't commit, citing all of the unknown variables related to the economy and the potential war.

On a positive note, salesmen remain hopeful that projects are still planned for this year and they believe that budgets could be flushed later this year pending a resolve in the Iraqi situation. Seventy percent of those surveyed still expect to see some signs of business improvement in the second half of this year.

"As we analyze the future outlook for our industry, we find that numerous crosscurrents exist for enterprise hardware companies as well as companies in the PC hardware space. We believe the market is still in a very uncertain phase where 'hope' is the main driver," Deutsche Bank Analyst George Elling said in a briefing to investors. "Although there are segments of the industry that are still doing reasonably well – such as government, healthcare, and retail – for the most part CIOs continue to closely monitor spending and new projects are only undertaken when ROI on these projects appears compelling."

Elling says when CIOs do spend, they primarily focus on maintenance and lowering total cost of ownership. Salesmen believe the PC upgrade cycle has, in fact, been occurring, and will continue. In addition, customers are pursuing new technologies such as blade servers [define] and the use of Linux. They also continue to believe server consolidation and SANs [define] are projects that must be undertaken in the near future.

"As one salesman put it, 'several of my customers have gone over two years in which they have not really initiated new ventures. I know they are still planning major upgrades and it will just depend on when they feel a comfort level to initiate the projects.'" Elling said. "In my view this quote sums up the feelings of many of the salesmen we spoke with."

So who has the best odds of coming out of the slump smelling like a rose? Based on Deutsche Bank's calls, IBM and HP should remain at the top of the heap while Sun Microsystems could see an uptick at any signs of business improvement.

"Other positive comments from Sun salesmen include the fact that their compensation plans were finally reworked and that the salesmen have readjusted goals as of January 1st. The salesmen we spoke with appeared to be pleased with the readjustments," Elling said. "Also, pre-sales engineers appeared to be extremely excited with the roadmap Sun has outlined for future products. Netra servers are strong and new products that incorporate network computing are likely over the next few quarters."

The survey also found Sun's recently announced Project Orion is expected to be "hot" and StorEdge also appears to be doing well.

On the negative side, the survey found the LX50, Sun's Linux offering, has done poorly and salesmen felt the company missed the price point. In addition, Sun's application server software from SunOne has problems although the portal server software is doing well.

For IBM, POWER blades (i.e., blades running on its PowerPC chips); T-Rex, a new zSeries family; and the company's POWER4+ chip and POWER5 chip were viewed as promising.

The transition to HP's Itanium-based servers was regarded as "favorable", but few have made the transition as of yet. Less clear is customer's commitment to switch to HP-UX.

Of the products most likely to get an excited response were ones coming from Dell. The company is close to launching new 8-way servers over the next few months and those polled were "very excited" about the low-end CX200, which Dell will begin manufacturing shortly.

As to the question of who really holds the purse strings in IT spending – the CIO or CFO? – those polled believe the CIO remains king with regard to overall spending patterns. While CFOs may limit budgets, they typically do not second-guess a CIO's estimates for technology spending.

However, many of the CIOs Deutsche Bank spoke to indicate very cautious and controlled spending patterns, which seems to echo the current economic uncertainty.

Reprinted from internetnews.com

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