Channel faces cash crisis

Very tough Q4

Resellers in Europe and the US are bracing themselves for a very tough Q4, amid signs of a "significant weakening in corporate purchasing plans" on both sides of the Atlantic.

The US is particularly hard hit, but the European market could be "decelerating at a pace similar to the deceleration found in the U.S. a year ago". Entire sectors, especially the airline industry, are in liquidity crisis, post September 11, and this means that IT budgets, following an already difficult year, are under even closer scrutiny.

Weak demand will translate into more pricing pressure, and could even provoke a cash crunch in the IT channel, which has little room for manoeuvre, as it already operates on razor-thin margins.

These are some conclusions from the Channel Tracker report, a quarterly survey of c.500 IT industry players, which collectively account for 65 per cent of PC shipments worldwide, compiled by Global Touch and Morgan Stanley.

The survey monitors demand, vendor outlooks, pricing and inventory levels, and its most recent version covers the period to Sept 30, 2001.

Unless sustainable volumes return, the report concludes, the "combination of lower volumes and lower margins could create a domino effect of liquidity problems that would ripple up and down the supply chain of the IT industry".

So what is to be done? The most obvious solution, as GlobalTouch points out, is for vendors to assume more of the risk. Currently, disties act as mostly unpaid bankers to the reseller sector.

Tiny margins means significant risk if a customer goes bust, especially at a time when bad debt insurers are very unhappy to get their hands dirty with the computer industry. If you are a distie on five per cent gross margins, you need to bill an extra $1m if an uninsured customer goes bust with debts of $50,000. The sums don't add up.

Reseller margins on product sales are also laughable - wealth and liquidity is locked within the vendors. Few vendors want to sell direct, but they will have no choice unless they change their attitude to financing e.g moving from reseller models - where dealers and disties take title on goods - to agency models, where the channel earns a fee for their services.

Finally we enter one caveat with the survey results: Dell is such a major player in the IT products industry that its absence skews perceptions. Add in Dell, and results may not look quite so terrible. And isn't Dell a reseller - it is after all the biggest assembler for Intel, for example. ®

Here is more happy reading from the Channel Tracker Survey

  • Over 60 per cent of the participants in both the US and Europe reported that third quarter sales were below expectations.

  • Almost 90 per cent of respondents said that US third quarter sales would be flat or below Q2 sales (ending June 30, 2001), while 75 percent had the same feeling about European sales.
  • A significant number (57 per cent) of respondents reported that planned U.S. customer orders of PC servers were cancelled or postponed during the third quarter. Only 18 per cent reported a similar situation in Europe.
  • Sales of PC desktops and servers appear to be hardest hit in the US, with over 50 per cent of respondents citing that they were below expectations.
  • In year-to-year comparisons for the third quarter, revenues are down further in the US than in Europe.
  • An extraordinary number of UNIX server sellers (84 per cent) say that sales have been below or "extremely below" expectations in the US, while 52 percent have the same results for Europe. Sun Microsystems, in particular, was noted as the revenue growth laggard, where IBM was the leader.
  • In another key area, enterprise storage revenues are below expectations in the US (84 per cent), but in line with expectations in Europe(73 per cent). However, 60 per cent of US respondents and 72 per cent
    of European respondents expect to see enterprise revenues increase in the fourth quarter.
  • In the battered networking segment, sales at 3Com and Enterasys Cabletron) appear to be the hardest hit by the downturn, while Enterasys' and Cisco's inventories appear to be higher than normal.
  • The survey also showed that 41 per cent of US respondents and 69 per cent of their European counterparts expect networking revenues to have a meagre single digit growth in units in Q4 2001.
  • Channel partners expect US prices to be competitive to "very competitive" in the fourth quarter, especially in the areas of enterprise storage and ink jet printers.In Europe, pricing will be somewhat less competitive compared to the U.S.
  • In Europe, Compaq appears to have the highest inventory levels of PC desktops, while IBM has the greatest inventory of laptops.
  • Year-to-year US revenue projections for the fourth quarter are expected to be flat or down for all of the major PC desktop vendors, including Apple, Compaq, HP and IBM. Projections for Europe are much stronger with most expecting moderate to very strong growth for the same vendors.
  • In laptops, a similar situation is expected in the U.S. with flat or negative growth for the fourth quarter. Results for Europe show a mix of expectations for laptop sales, with less pessimism compared to the US
  • Revenue projections for the US server market show flat growth for Compaq and HP and moderate growth for IBM. In Europe, all three vendors can expect at least moderate growth.
  • Growth in printer sales is expected to be stronger in the US than in Europe.

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