Thursday, November 5, 2009

Consumer Behavior in Recession was as Expected

Time Warner Cable's third quarter results provide a bit of concrete evidence that consumers did what they said they were going to as far as watching their spending on communications and entertainment services because of the recession.

Consumers said earlier in 2009 they were least likely to cut or reduce spending on Internet access and most likely to cut back on buying pay-per-view movies downloaded over the Internet, according to a new survey by Alcatel-Lucent. But mobile service, basic entertainment video service and telephone lines were among the items consumers said they were most likely to keep, though cutting back on things such as going to night clubs and concerts or going out to movies and restaurants.

All of those patterns would be in keeping with past consumer behavior in recessions.


Generally speaking, people said they would be keeping their broadband Internet, wireless and video entertainment services, though showing much more willingness to curtail adding new enhanced or premium services.

Some surveys suggested consumers would accelerate their abandonment of wired voice, while others suggested demand for fixed telephone services would hold up.

Time Warner Cable's results show that broadband Internet additions held up as expected, though sales of digital video, a premium upgrade, fell, as consumers suggested would be the case.

Time Warner's new voice customers also appear weak, though that bit of data does not necessarily confirm analyst expectations. Existing customers of other voice services might simply have stuck with their existing providers instead of switching to Time Warner Cable.

Overall net new additions tend to show the impact of consumer caution. The company added 117,000 revenue generating units in the third quarter, compared to 522,000 a year ago.

More to the point, Time Warner added 8,000 net new digital video customers, compared to 56,000 net new subscribers analysts were expecting. It added 62,000 net new voice customers where analysts had expected 107,000. The firm also added 117,000 broadband Internet access customers, where analysts had expected 115,000.

So broadband held up, while digital video activity fell, as did voice services.

Still, there are lots of variables to consider. Local market competitive conditions can sharply affect results, as do promotional activities.

Comcast, for example, saw its digital video customer base grow a net 7.4 percent, while adding 6.4 percent net new broadband customers and 20.3 percent voice customers.

Still, the point is that consumers had suggested, and history suggested, that wireless, broadband Internet and entertainment video growth rates would slow, but that the services themselves would hold up. It appears they did, at least for these two large cable operators. At&T and Verizon also added large numbers of wireless customers, as well as a decent number of video and broadband access customers.

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