Wall Street Throws the Book at Barnes & Noble

I know, I know -- it seems like I end about 90% of my pieces with some version of "I like the company ... but I wish the stock were cheaper." Well, what can I say? I'm a cheapskate and I like to wait for bargains in the stock market (since it's the best way to reduce my overall risk).

And so let's flash back to March when I last talked about Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS  ) . I closed with "It might be worth waiting for the stock to ease a bit off of its new highs" -- and lo and behold the stock is now about 15% cheaper after last week's first-quarter earnings report. While it's not yet in my sweet spot for buying, it's getting intriguingly close.

The reason the stock is getting cheap is most likely because folks are frustrated with what they see as a sluggish (at best) growth environment for this huge retailer of books and music. Sales growth last quarter was just 2%, with comp-store sales in the flagship down a bit, and guidance for the next quarter was actually for negative comp-store performance.

Like most other big-box retailers, this is a system that is powered by sales. Although gross margins were a bit higher this quarter, operating income fell 11% (in part because of stock option expense). And the absence of a Harry Potter-sized bestseller last year isn't going to help the next quarter.

I'm not going to defend the growth outlook for Barnes & Noble. The company is apparently finding it increasingly difficult to locate good sites for new stores and it already direct-sources about 90% of its books (i.e., gets the books directly from the publisher rather than from a wholesaler). But let's keep this in perspective. This isn't a story like Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) that's still about double-digit revenue growth or a story like Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK  ) that's about someday achieving profitability.

Instead, this is a story about producing cash flow -- cash flow that will ultimately fund future stock repurchases and/or dividends. Accordingly, if this stock continues to slide on worries about growth, long-term value hounds might want to thumb through the pages and see if it's not worth pulling off the shelf.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).


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