Computers hit growth plateau

Although nearly a third of all UK adults have a computer, ownership is heavily oriented towards upmarket households. To expand the market and increase their appeal to leisure users, makers could learn from the strong advertising and branding o

New research from NOP establishes that nearly a third of all adults now have a computer at home, 25 per cent owning a desk-top and eight per cent a laptop. Although some of these machines are likely to be company property kept at employees’ homes, the UK is now almost at the level of the US in terms of home computing access – but our ownership profile raises interesting questions for the future development of the market.

Home computers are most widespread among ABC1s: executive and white-collar workers. Between them, these types of household have two-thirds of all domestic desktops, and four-fifths of laptops; 53 per cent of ABs have at least one computer, compared with 12 per cent of DEs.

Over 55-year-olds are relatively untouched by the computer revolution, ownership levels running at half those for the younger age groups. Families with children under 15, contrary to popular assumption, are only slightly more likely than others to have a computer at home, so although exposure may be common at school, less than a third of families are able to practise at home.

This highly-biased owner profile cannot be explained merely in terms of affluence or, except for the over-55s, by technophobia. Games consoles – machines devoted to games, as opposed to home computers with games software – have a similar level of ownership to home computers, but show a very different ownership profile.

Console ownership is at its strongest in the North, which was slightly under-represented in computer ownership. C2DEs, who made up only a third of computer households, own 56 per cent of games consoles. Just over half of all households with children have a games console, representing about two-thirds of total ownership. About a third of computer homes also have a games console, although the two machines may be used by different family members. These overlap homes are concentrated among ABs.

The Internet

Given the high ownership of home computers, access to the Internet offers a good growth opportunity, as only 17 per cent of people with a computer can use the Net at home.

The Internet profile echoes computer ownership quite closely, but shows even more bias towards southern, upmarket, under 55-year-olds. Nineteen per cent of AB, and 11 per cent of C1, households have Net access, compared with three per cent of CDEs. Upmarket users make up 85 per cent of all domestic subscribers.

Six per cent of adults intend to connect to the Internet within the next 12 months. Of these, seven out of ten already have a computer. The majority of those interested – 70 per cent – are ABC1s, and a similar proportion are computer owners.

Prospective hardware and software sales

A third of all UK adults over 15 are considering buying electronic hardware or software in the next six months. Eighteen per cent are thinking of buying a computer, compared with seven per cent a games console; ten per cent are looking for a desk-top, six per cent a laptop and nine per cent a CD-Rom drive. Software sales are also thriving – about two-thirds of owners intend to buy one or more of the following: games and non-games discs, a games console and CD-Rom software.

But a significant proportion of hardware purchase intention is from existing owners. Two-thirds of prospective console buyers live in a household which already has at least one console, so the new purchase is either duplication or an upgrade. In either event, less than three per cent of all households will be new to the market – although there may be incremental growth if old machines are passed on.

Interest in new computers indicates more expansion of the customer base; just over half of those considering buying a computer live in non-owning households. However, the expansion is taking up the slack among upmarket households, rather than expanding the social class base of ownership.

ABs, whose ownership levels are already the highest, are twice as likely as the rest of population to be buying a desktop, and the combined AB and C1s comprise two-thirds of people contemplating portable and fixed machines.

Spontaneous ad awareness

Awareness of computer brands reflects the very fragmented nature of the market. Although more than 20 brands were named as advertising in the past month, only IBM was recalled by as many as ten per cent of all adults. All three games console brands have higher levels of awareness; Sega scores 24 per cent, Sony 17 per cent and Nintendo 11.

Ad awareness roughly doubles among owners, both for computers and consoles, but the highest levels are among those actively in the market for a new machine or software – 86 per cent of console, and 72 per cent of computer buyers were aware of advertising for at least one brand. Within this audience, IBM achieves 17 per cent; Apple Mac, Compaq, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard five per cent or more. Intel, although not properly a computer brand, was named by nine per cent, showing the impact of its sustained advertising campaign. Sega achieves 58 and Sony 43 per cent of prospective console buyers, outpacing Nintendo at 15 per cent.

Readership of computer magazines and newspapers

Readership of computer publications – even newspaper supplements – is surprisingly low. Only 17 per cent of adults named any publication they had read in the past month, although this rose to 32 per cent among computer owners, and 22 per cent of those with a console. The vast majority have read only one publication.

Newspaper supplements are read by a wider readership than specialist magazines; owners make up just under half of newspaper readers, but two-thirds of magazine readers. Both types of publication have a strong upmarket bias, but supplements derive twice as many readers from the over-55s, the least likely owners or purchasers of computers.

Given the rather introspective nature of the market, this would imply that in the short term, product information and advertising may work harder in specialist media – but there is little prospect of expanding the customer base.

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