Best Buy's profits up on gadget obsession

NEW YORK — Even in a weak economy, Americans increasingly feel that gadgets such as smart phones aren't luxuries but necessities.

That shift has helped electronics sales weather the recession better than some other categories and helped Best Buy post a strong fourth-quarter profit Thursday on a steep sales increase fueled by flat-panel TVs, notebook computers and wireless gadgets.

Best Buy's profit rose 37 percent, and its revenue grew 12 percent to $16.55 billion. It also projected a brighter-than-expected 2010.

The company announced in February it would open a store this fall in Poplar Square in the building formerly occupied by Joe's Sports, Outdoor & More.The store will employ about 100 people, a spokesman said.

Even though consumers faced tough challenges in 2009 such as the housing slump, job fears and personal debt, CEO Brian Dunn said on a call with investors, they often cut back elsewhere rather than electronics.

He said unit sales of TVs, notebook computers and cell phones increased enough during the year to offset significant declines in prices for some of the items. That mirrors the industry. Americans bought 34 percent more notebook computers and 22 percent more flat-panel TVs in 2009 compared with 2008, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc.

"Some of the things we offer no longer fall under the category of discretionary purchases," Dunn said.

That's true for Sandy Kaye, 29, who left her job as an event planner and went through a divorce in August. She moved in with her father and was unemployed for six months before starting a temp job, but she never considered giving up her iPhone. "I use it as a phone, for e-mail, it's my alarm clock, it has my grocery lists on it ... it's my crutch," said the Milwaukee resident. "It's so much a part of my life I'm willing to not buy new clothes or new shoes so I don't have to give up my phone."

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