Have Consumers Maxed Out on TV Purchases?

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TV fatigue has appeared to have set in. No, not in terms of TV viewing, which even with the rise of cord cutting and increased use of the Internet for entertainment, seems to be as strong as ever. But in terms of new TV purchases. For the first time ever—yes, ever—shipments of LCD flat-screen TVs have declined.

Those are the findings of the most recent NPD Group Display Search report. During the first quarter of 2012, 43,131,000 units of the world’s most popular TV, the LCD flat screen, were shipped globally. That represents a 3% drop from the same period in 2011, and it represents the first time ever that year-over-year LCD numbers are down.

The explanation for why TV sales are declining isn’t particularly complicated. For the most part, we all already own plenty of TVs, and odds are they’re fairly new ones not in need of replacement.

Last summer, manufacturers and retailers were grumbling that consumers weren’t buying TVs in strong enough numbers, soon after a period in which sales of LCD and plasma-screen units had been increasing 20% annually. Still, after months of slow sales, stores managed to make the TV one of the hottest-selling items during last year’s holiday season, thanks to dramatic price markdowns.

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By the time post-Christmas sales had ended, anyone and everyone interested in upgrading their TVs or adding a set to yet another room in the house had probably made their purchases. Hence a falloff in demand for more new TVs in early 2012. How many TVs, after all, can we be expected to buy?

CNN Money noted that “consumers tend to swap out their TVs less frequently than they would their smartphones or computers” (I’d hope so, especially since a lot of people upgrade phones every two or three years), and that, according to NPD DisplaySearch analyst Paul Gagnon, the market is thoroughly saturated with flat-screen TVs:

“When the penetration reaches pretty high levels and there isn’t a super compelling reason to go out and upgrade a recently purchased TV, it leads to these soft spots, especially with the global economy being as weak as it is right now,” he said. “People are just more conservative in their shopping behavior and they don’t really see reason to go out and upgrade their TVs.”

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In such an atmosphere, manufacturers and retailers are stuck with two main strategies to try to tempt consumers into TV purchases: cut prices and/or add new features. A dealnews post lists a handful of recent examples of the former, with 46-inch widescreen Sharp units selling for $500—beating the best price the site has seen by $300. The price of 3-D TVs has also plummeted in recent months, and according to Consumer Reports, even the cost of the glasses necessary for 3-D TV enjoyment have come down to earth. They cost as little as $20 a pair now, down from as much as $150. The 3-D TV would be far more appealing, of course, if viewers didn’t have to wear (or buy) any special glasses at all.

In terms of exciting new features for TVs, 3-D technology has failed to attract the masses. Consumers do seem to be drawn in by bigger and bigger pictures though. Data from Display Search shows that 37% of TVs sold in the first quarter of 2012 were 40 inches or larger, up from around 31% the previous year. More than a few couch potatoes have been drooling over the recently introduced 90-inch LED TV from the Sharp. At four feet tall and six and a half feet wide, it’s the world’s largest unit of its kind, and it has a retail price to match: $10,999.

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Something tells me you’ll be able to buy this TV for less than that by the time the 2012 holiday shopping period rolls around.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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