Flat-panel prices sink on low demand

Sluggish sales and an end to component shortage problems are making flat-panel monitor prices attractive for buyers. Expect a steady decrease in retail prices this year, analysts say.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
The golden age for flat-panel monitor makers is ending after 10 months.

After rising for nearly a year, the prices on components for flat-panel monitors have begun to drop. And, although consumers have yet to see the benefits of the component reductions, retail prices on finished monitors will decrease steadily as the year goes on, analysts say.

"The second quarter was not what everyone was expecting," said Rhoda Alexander, director of monitor research for iSuppli/Stanford Resources, a market research firm. "People are going to see some (price cutting) activity during the back-to-school and holiday season."

While the shift in pricing will be welcome news for consumers, it could mark the return to the bad old days for the manufacturers of finished monitors and components.

From 1998 through most of 2001, manufacturers of flat panels--the glass that sits inside the monitor--and the companies that craft the finished monitors were suffering from an excess of competition. A shortage of LCD glass, partly driven by growing demand for notebooks and handheld devices in the late 1990s, prompted makers to invest in glass plants in Taiwan and Korea in 1998 and 1999, which lead to a supply glut.

Retail prices toward the end of 2000 were in free fall, dropping $200 in six weeks on some $699 products. Some manufacturers, at times, had to sell panels for as much as $30 below cost.

At the same time, the new low prices began to spur demand for desktop flat-panel monitors. Unit shipments in 2001 more than doubled from 2000. Notebooks, which use the same type of glass, continued to grow.

By the end of 2001, component costs were on the rise. PC manufacturers, analysts and even panel makers expected to see shortages and retail price increases on flat panels in 2002 because of the imbalance between supply and demand. Stronger-than-expected PC sales in the first quarter buoyed enthusiasm.

Then the second quarter hit. Consumer PC sales plummeted in April and May. Intel and Apple had to lower revenue estimates while Hewlett-Packard, among others, saw inventories grow.

Consequently, inventory began to build at panel and monitor manufacturers. Demand continues to grow, said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC. The problem is that supply is now ahead.

"The economy in general has slowed purchases. There is a fair amount of extra panels out there," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC. "The feared undersupply didn't happen."

Prices for panels from major manufacturers began to drop in July. The price of 15-inch panels dropped around $3 to $5 at the wholesale level, Alexander said. The price will drop another $5 to $10 in August and September, she said.

Consumers so far haven't seen the effect of these changes because of the nuances of the panel market. When panel prices began to rise last year, monitor manufacturers largely sucked up the cost by reducing their margins. Monitor makers ended up eating about $40 to $45 per monitor because of component price increases during the rise.

Still, consumers will soon see the benefits. The average price of 15-inch flat panel monitors at retail was $398 in the second quarter. It will drop to around $388 in the third quarter and $368 by the fourth quarter, Alexander said.

Meanwhile, prices on 17-inch flat panels will drop from an average retail price of $684 in the second quarter to $625 in the fourth, she said.

The monitor market is also reacting to seasonal trends within a normal business cycle and the second quarter is also slow, said Bruce Berkoff, LG Philips' executive vice president of marketing. Supply could tighten again before the year is out. Whether the industry has entered onto a different wave won't be known for months.