Aug 25, 2020 - Technology

What tech is (and isn't) selling during the coronavirus pandemic

Illustration of face mask with price stickers
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Sales of PCs, webcams and other tech products that help people work, learn and play at home are up, while products designed for the highly mobile are losing ground.

The big picture: The pandemic has shifted where Americans spend their time — and, consequently, where they are spending their tech dollars.

What's happening: Home computers, and related accessories like web cams and external monitors, are flying off the shelves, as so much of our work and school lives have moved to remote setups that demand such hardware.

  • Laptops in general, and Chromebooks in particular, are in high demand given their popularity for students. Touchscreen models are especially sought after by parents of younger kids.
  • Even PC component sales are growing, as enthusiasts rediscover the satisfaction of building their own machine. "Consumers are looking for something to do," said NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker. "This had been a very steady market for many years but this type of growth is just astounding."

But those aren't the only products in high demand.

  • E-bike sales were growing before the pandemic but have spiked since March as people look for safer alternatives to shared options like public transit and ride sharing.
  • Printers, both laser and inkjet, have seen substantial growth this year, as have sales of ink cartridges, which had not previously been rising. Ink printers are up 12% and laser printers up 33% from a year ago, per NPD.
  • TVs, soundbars and other devices for home entertainment are also seeing strong demand.

Yes, but: Other categories are taking a hit.

Smartphone sales had already been slowing over the last few years, but that slump has become a sharp downturn during the pandemic.

  • Smartphones are still seeing heavy use even if people are using them more over WiFi and less over cellular networks.
  • But the upgrade cycle has been disrupted by factors including economic concerns and practicalities like people dropping their phones less often as they use them primarily at home.

Mobile accessories have taken a more direct hit — though some products remain strong sellers, per Chris Ahern, CEO of accessories maker Zagg Brands.

  • That includes anything that helps protect against germs, Ahern said, as well as — perhaps less expected — phone cases with built-in battery packs. That may be because people are holding on to their phones longer and need extra juice as their battery life flags over time.

Action camera maker GoPro is a surprising example of a firm that's seen sales rebound after an initial hit.

  • You might not expect many people to need a rugged waterproof camera during quarantine, but GoPro said it sold 750,000 cameras last quarter, 20% more than it had forecast in May.
  • The company is also benefiting from Zeus Mini, a recently introduced light that can illuminate video conference calls in addition to functioning as a head lamp or headlight alternative while camping.

Where it stands: The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) projects overall U.S. tech sales will drop 2.2% — the first yearly decline since 2009.

  • That's still better than most other sectors of the economy, which are seeing much larger drops.

What's next: Smart displays are one category that could be poised to take off.

  • Zoom is coming to Amazon's Echo displays as well as Facebook's Portal, which will also soon support Webex and is already seeing strong demand, with sales in May 10 times above those in mid-March.
  • And CTA predicts overall tech spending will rebound next year, rising an estimated 5.2%.
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