Acer overtook Dell in notebook computer sales at the end of last year, in a sign of just how important individual consumers buying laptops in retail stores have become to the laptop market.

According to figures from analysts DisplaySearch, HP was the market leader for the fourth quarter of 2007, shipping 6.6 million units. That represents a 42-percent growth over 2006 and a current 20.1 percent market share.

However, Acer's 5.25 million units (15.9 percent of the market) was also notable. The manufacturer used a strong retail and channel presence in Europe and Asia to overtake Dell, DisplaySearch's director of notebook research, John Jacobs, said.

Dell, which shipped 4.64 million units, now has 14 percent of the market. Jacobs said that Dell had, to a degree, neglected its retail strategy by placing far more focus on enterprises.

Dell is now signing more retailers and placing products on more shelves, which could boost the company's notebook shipments.

Until a few years ago, 70 percent to 80 percent of the laptops shipped were to enterprises, but now it's equally split between enterprises and consumers, Jacobs said. That plays into the hands of manufacturers with a strong retail presence and is redefining the distribution strategy of companies like HP, Acer and Dell.

In fourth spot in DisplaySearch’s study was Toshiba, followed by Lenovo, Fujitsu-Siemens, Sony and Asus. Apple was ninth, shipping 1.34 million units. Overall, notebook shipments totalled 33 million in the fourth quarter of 2007, growing 41 percent.

During a recent conference call, Dell CEO Michael Dell said that notebooks were outselling desktops six to one, and that the company's PC sales were getting a boost from the retail strategy it introduced last year. Dell is now selling PCs in about 10,000 retail stores worldwide.

Most of Dell's retail sales have been in the US, though the company's agreements with European retailers are starting to take effect, Dell said. The company signed up European retailers including Carrefour and Tesco to sell PCs.

Dell's retail strategy took off in the fourth quarter of 2007 and will expand this year, said David Daoud, research manager at IDC. Dell is witnessing an upward move every quarter, and its growing retail presence could bite into HP's numbers this year, Daoud said.

Dell rules online notebook sales, but the strength of HP and Acer in stores pushed them ahead of Dell in market share, Daoud recognised. Consumers tend to research online but are increasingly going to retail outlets to buy notebooks.

"It's critical to have that look-and-feel, that touch presence" said DisplaySearch's Jacobs. "At the end of the day, the physical experience is very important."