Aug 15, 2020 - Technology

"Historic" laptop demand leads to shortages ahead of remote school

Illustration of open laptop with a grid background and circles.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

American students are facing a shortage of laptops, particularly low-cost Chromebooks popular in K-8 schools, at the same time that many districts are choosing full-remote or hybrid reopening models.

Why it matters: No device = no education.

Supply and demand: U.S. laptop sales began surging in March, as the pandemic caused both kids and adults to work from home. This came on the heels of manufacturing and distribution slowdowns in China, due to both the annual New Year's holiday closures and then virus-related disruptions.

  • "Sales have been up 20%-40% every single week," said Stephen Baker, a consumer tech analyst with The NPD Group. "Some of the education channel sales got pulled forward into March and April, but there's been no overall slowdown."
  • "Not even close." That was the response from Gregg Prendergast, Acer America president, when asked if there will be enough Chromebooks to satisfy remote learning needs at the time of reopening. He adds that demand is "historic," and that just last week Acer received requests for hundreds of thousands of new devices from government officials in both California and Nevada.
  • Best Buy's website shows 28 models of Chromebooks priced under $400. As of Friday morning, 24 of those models were sold out.

Supply chain shortages aren't just on finished products, but also on internal components like screens, batteries, chassis, and processors. And then there are shipping and port delays, which Prendergast says has caused his company to begin using air freight in some circumstances. He says can save up to three weeks, in part due to a quicker U.S. Customs process.

  • Many schools in the spring relied on existing device supplies, loaning out older devices. That resulted in much more wear-and-tear, thus accelerating the upgrade/replacement cycle.

Next level: Broadband access remains an educational barrier for many students, even if their school districts managed to source enough and distribute devices.

The bottom line: The device crunch won't subside any time soon, even if schools and parents can afford to foot the bill.

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