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Survey Says...

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- 2001.03.09 - Tip Jar

Much has been made on the Mac Web of the recent Harris Interactive survey of "more than 6,500 who purchased a home PC in the first three quarters of 2000." After all, we won - 53% of those who had previously owned a Mac bought another Mac. The nearest competitor was Gateway at 45%

The survey also showed the top three brands purchased by these Internet uses were Compaq, H-P, and Gateway. Also, Gateway came out as the #1 brand among first-time buyers.

But a question has been nagging at me: Exactly what is the survey measuring? Were 53% of all new Mac purchases made by Mac users? Did 53% of existing Mac users who bought new computers stick with Apple, while 47% went elsewhere? Is that 53% of all new Mac purchases or 53% of all Mac purchases not made by first-time buyers?

Inquisitive minds have to know, so I emailed Nancy Wong, the PR Coordinator at Harris Interactive, explaining the ambiguity I saw in the published results and asking for clarification. She forwarded my request to Dave Tremblay, the author of the study, who cleared up several issues.

  • 53% of those who used Macs prior to their latest computer purchase bought Macs. That means 47% of them left the Mac OS for Windows, Linux, or something else.
  • The lowest rate of brand switching (47%) is for Mac owners. Tremblay estimates the level of brand switching among name brand Windows PCs would be somewhere in the 65% range.
  • Among recent Mac buyers who had owned a computer, 26% were switching from another brand to Apple. That means 74% of those who bought Macs this time were already Mac users.
  • Overall, 20% of surveyed users were buying their first computer. Only 18% of Mac users were first timers.
  • First-time computer buyers are most likely to buy Gateway, eMachines, and H-P.

That 53% retention rate looks nice, until you realize it means 47% of Mac users in the survey left the Mac OS behind. That does not bode well for the future of Apple Computer.

Likewise, first-time purchasers are 10% less likely to buy an Apple than choose a Windows computer. Despite the iMac, the easier OS, iTools, and other Apple innovations, it doesn't look like first-time buyers see Macs in as attractive a light as Windows machines.

Mac users are far more loyal on average than Windows users, but if this survey reflects buying realities, Apple is almost as likely to lose a Mac owner as keep him/her at replacement time.

Based on this data, about 18% of Mac buyers are first-time purchasers, 21% are Wintel converts (some possibly returning "old Mac" users), and 61% are repeat Mac buyers. In rough figures, one of five Macs is purchased by a newbie, one by a convert, three by those already using Macs.

Other Data

The interesting reality is that Apple has been growing unit sales since the introduction of the iMac. Total unit sales in fiscal 1998, the year the iMac was introduced, were 2.7 millions Macs. That rose 25% in fiscal 1999, the first full year the iMac was available, reaching 3.45 million. Fiscal 2000 blew past that to 4.55 million units, an amazing 32% growth from the previous year.

Looking at figures like that, which are far higher than the rest of the personal computer industry is used to, we have to wonder if the survey set used by Harris Interactive is representative - or if there may be other factors at work.

For instance, in a survey of 6,500 with 20% first-time users, the sample of repeat buyers is approximately 5,200. Best estimates put the Mac presence on the Web at somewhere between 5% and 10%. Choosing 7.5% as an educated guess, that means approximately 375-400 previous Mac owners and 475-500 current Mac owners were surveyed. Some were repeat Mac buyers, while others were Wintel converts.

The smaller the sample, the less accurate the data. With this number of users, the margin of error is probably around 5%. (That's not so bad - national surveys often have a 3% margin of error with a much larger sample.)

Further, because Net use is biased to the workplace, to networked computers, over 90% of those surveyed were Windows users. The fact that former Mac owners now using Windows was 47% is frustrating to Mac lovers, but the number is probably a little bit on the high side because of the way Windows users dominate the Web. (Over 40% of visitors to this site are surfing via Windows, not Macs.)

Finally, another significant factor has to be the longevity of the Mac. In the Windows world, it's not uncommon to replace a computer system every two or three years. In the Mac world, we tend to use computers for three to five years, which means the number of Mac users buying new computers in a given year (25% or so) is significantly lower than the industry average of about 40%.

Conclusion

I'm not trying to explain away the results of the Harris Interactive survey. Even if Mac users tend to hold onto Mac users 47% likely to leave Mac behindtheir computers longer and there is a pronounced Windows bias on the Web, the mere fact that this survey found Mac users are 47% likely to leave the Mac behind when they buy a new computer. That's disturbing.

So is the fact that first-time buyers are about 10% less likely to choose a Mac than a name brand Windows computer, at least among the surveyed group.

I hope these are the kind of issues Steve Jobs is discussing with the marketing department at Apple. To really grow, Apple needs to hook first-time buyers and capitalize on Wintel converts. Sure, the company has seen some amazing growth thanks to the iMac, but there's a lot more market to conquer.

Maybe that explains Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian?

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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