Under The Influence

August represents prime time in the back to school shopping season, and retailers are more than a little nervous about what this year will bring. While we're actively researching back to school shopping across multiple categories this month, there is no category more hotly contested than the battle to see which laptop students will show up with on campus.

Two years ago, we looked at the numbers and declared that while Dell was currently more popular, Apple had greater momentum when it came to future purchase intent and would be the leading laptop among college students by the summer of 2008.

At the time (October 2007) Dell led the pack with 33% ownership while Apple followed at 23%. Despite this gap in current ownership, Apple appeared to be gaining ground on Dell, with 44% of students saying that their next computer would be an Apple (compared to an underwhelming 21% for Dell). Given that a laptop lasts a few years, it seemed a sure thing that Apple would take the lead.



Imagine our surprise, as we measured last month, that Dell still leads the pack with 31%, followed by Apple, which remains parked at 23% of current ownership. Once again, Apple would appear to be poised to overtake Dell, with 37% of students saying that their next computer will be an Apple (compared to an anemic 15% for Dell).

Understanding the apparent disconnect between current use and future intent among college students requires a better understanding of who's doing the buying, when and why.

Laptops are largely paid for by Mom and Dad just before a college student's freshman year and, faced with significant costs across multiple categories, they are motivated to keep the purchase of a laptop as cheap as possible.

Only one-third of collegians report paying for their laptop using only their own money; the other two-thirds get help with a portion of the price tag (10%) or have it purchased for them entirely (56%). While deciding what to buy is more often within the student's control, more than a third (36%) is being influenced by the advice of others.

If we look at high school students, we see a dramatically different picture, showing us how all the purchase intent in the world can't break a PC-centric parental influence. Dell is the laptop brand most often used by high school students at 30% current ownership while Apple trails dramatically at 4% current ownership. Future intent is nearly at parity, with 22% intending to buy an Apple and 20% intending to buy a Dell.

Merely one out of eight (13%) of high school students paid for his/her own PC and merely one-third (33%) made the decision as to what they would purchase. For high school students, this is a decision that is thrust upon them. They might wish that their parents would buy them an Apple, but it's not happening.

For those of us that spend our time studying youth, it's really hard to find many flaws in Apple's marketing approach. While Apple's mass marketing efforts are focused on the iPod and iPhone, the halo effect is undeniable and once a student buys an iPod or iPhone they are much more likely to want to buy an Apple laptop as well.

Understanding this phenomenon as well as anyone, Apple has directly tied the popularity of the iPod to the MacBook via a Back to School campaigns that dates back to 2005. Meanwhile, Microsoft has managed to (finally) find the button -- price -- that makes Apple squirm with the "Laptop Hunters" campaign.

Until Apple can unwind the cost argument, it will continue to struggle to escape the gravitational pull that parents have on the laptop that students wind up using.

4 comments about "Under The Influence ".
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  1. Bruce Peoples from Peoples Marketing, August 14, 2009 at 1:55 p.m.

    I wonder how many parents get home and realize that in order to fully utilize their Dell/Microsoft laptop, they need to shell out an extra $300-400 for MS Office and other add-ons? Then the price gap narrows. One effective price reduction tool Apple is using now is buy a laptop, get a ITouch free. High schoolers (mine included) unequivocally think the ITouch and Iphone are the coolest tools on earth.

  2. Brandon Sutton from, August 14, 2009 at 3:38 p.m.

    Totally agree Bruce. Also, I have to wonder if they realize how quickly the Dells tend to become obsolete/unusable. I switched to Mac after my Dell that I had for 2 years essentially stopped working (wouldn't charge), and even when it did work it was horribly slow. My partner went through the same thing with his Dell and now doesn't use it at all. My MacBook Pro has been a workhorse for almost 3 years now, and I have had essentially no problems with it. I don't expect to be replacing it anytime soon. Compared to my experience with the Dell that I had to rebuild after a year of use, the MacBook Pro has been a dream. The life cycle should be part of the equation when considering a computer, and with viruses and spyware problems dragging down the processors of PCs (often resulting in purchasing new machines), the price gap suddenly swings the other way. After all, you get what you pay for, right?

  3. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion, August 14, 2009 at 5:36 p.m.

    I echo the thought that Mac laptops truly have lasting power. My daughter and I have shared a G3 iBook since March 2001. I updated the operating system twice (it is now 10.4 -- Tiger), added memory and wireless capability. I was able to get a new MacBook this year, but she is still using our original workhorse, which has traveled throughout the U.S. with us.

  4. Jamie Korsen from fiftypuls advertising, August 15, 2009 at 5:22 p.m.

    Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. RE: Gen X / Gen Y...

    Reality Now: Gen B.

    Please click link:


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