Tue, Feb 15, 2005 - Page 11 News List

Upstarts challenge their bigger rivals

MARKET THREAT Second-tier companies such as BenQ are getting attention with their cut-rate flat-panel TVs. But can they really compete with the Sonys of the world?

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Quality-control workers test Olevia LCD TV's for the Syntax Group, a maker of low-cost units, at their factory in City of Industry, California on Feb. 10.

PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ben who?

BenQ (明基), a new and almost unknown supplier of liquid-crystal-display televisions, hopes consumers will know the company's name in the next few months. Along with lesser-known brands like Norcent and Syntax, BenQ has jumped on the flat-panel TV bandwagon. All are attempting to capture market share from well-established consumer electronics manufacturers like Panasonic, Philips, RCA and Sony by using the same tactic: low prices.

But the second-tier companies -- including some using better-known brand names such as Polaroid and Westinghouse -- have a long way to go.

None of the new brands appear in the Top 10 list of flat-panel TV unit sales or revenue; according to DisplaySearch, a research firm, even the best-performing second-tier LCD company, Syntax, captured just 4 percent of sales in the third quarter of last year. BenQ held 1 percent.

As flat-panel televisions remain costly, these companies have chosen to compete at the bottom of the scale, hoping to attract buyers who lust after the latest technology but are unable to afford units made by the better-established brands.

In contrast to early analog picture tube companies that manufactured their own sets and did not share their technology, display panels and integrated chips for digital TV are made by various companies for sale to virtually anyone.

Yet despite such availability, established TV makers contend that their brand recognition and reliability will allow them to dominate the market.

"A consumer spending US$2,500 for a TV will take a careful view of how long it will last and how long it will be supported," said Jeff Cove, a vice president at Panasonic.

He cited his company's distribution and service networks as reasons it does not expect to lose market share to new, low-cost entrants.

Bharath Rajagopalan, an executive with RCA's parent, TCL-Thompson Electronics, said that all televisions were not created equal. Each top-tier manufacturer adds its own "secret sauce" to the mix -- algorithms and filters that reduce visual noise, plus other technologies that smooth out images, he said.

But James Li, chief executive of Syntax, which sells televisions under the Olevia brand, argued that such so-called secrets are only marketing gimmicks.

"The fundamental components that make the picture are the panel and the chipsets," he said.

Syntax gets those items from the same suppliers that some of the brand names use, he noted.

Few of these companies' products are available at the larger mass merchants. Instead, they tend to be sold through Internet retailers, regional electronics stores and specialty stores.

"This is absolutely a price play," said Glenn Cunningham, director of electronics at Amazon.com.

The Internet retailer sells second-tier flat-panel brands, including Westinghouse and Olevia.

"When I look at the customer reviews, they say `Great TV for the money,"' Cunningham said.

"People purchase no-name brands opportunistically," said Ross Rubin, director of marketing analysis for the NPD Group. "They say, `I just need something flat and sexy-looking in a room."'

Experience with PC monitors has given some entrepreneurs the impetus to make televisions.

William Wang, the former head of Princeton Graphics, began V Inc in 2003. The company employs just 28 workers in the US, using contractors in Asia to assemble plasma and LCD displays.

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