We've known for some time that the malls are ghost towns and retail is dying, if not already dead. Still, I had no intention of braving the traffic or battling for parking to do my Christmas shopping. There might not be as many sharp elbows in the aisles these days, but gridlock still reigns supreme outside.
I planned to do most of my shopping online. While I've bought progressively more items over the Internet each year, this Christmas I planned to do virtually all of it, well, virtually.
Which means there was only one "store" I really considered: Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) . Breadth of selection, reliability, security, price, and fast shipping made the choice easy. Whether I chose Amazon's own products or those of its partners, I was able to substantially complete my shopping in one day from the comfort of my dining room table.
I did all of my buying the week before Christmas (and still got everything delivered by the 24th), but it looks like I was outside the norm: The e-tailer reported Dec. 15 as its biggest-selling day of the year, and it once again set new records. Orders rose 17% to 6.3 million items, while shipments rose to 5.6 million units, up 44% from the year before.
Not surprisingly, the Nintendo Wii was among its top-selling products, as were EyeClops night vision goggles from JAKKS Pacific (Nasdaq: JAKK ) . High-def TVs from Samsung led the electronics categories, which might surprise some, as Corning (NYSE: GLW ) recently conceded defeat. The 8-gig iPod Touch from Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) was also a top dog, not surprising considering the symbiotic relationship between the two through the new App Store program that allows shoppers to browse Amazon's virtual aisles.
Yet that seems to conflict with the numbers my colleague Rick Munarriz recently highlighted showing that e-tail is dead, with comScore reporting that e-commerce sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 21 fell 1% from last year. MasterCard (NYSE: MA ) followed that up with a SpendingPulse report that tracked sales up until the 24th and found they fell 2.3% from the 2007 holiday shopping season.
So how do we account for Amazon's numbers? It is the exception that proves the rule, but that doesn't mean it will be an investment that proves to be exceptional. Although shares are some 10% below where they were at the beginning of November and almost 50% below their 52-week high, they've also risen 30% since nearly hitting their 52-week low just days before Thanksgiving. At current prices, Amazon now trades at 37 times this year's projected earnings. That's more than twice the valuation the market is assigning to bricks-and-mortar retailer Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) , notably one of the winners in this recession.
I like Amazon.com as a shopping destination, but this is the peak for now. The Christmas season is its high point; I think it can only be downhill from here, particularly given economic conditions. I think Wal-Mart offers a more compelling valuation, and it's a retailer that can continue to prosper even if the recession deepens. Like an after-holiday discount, I'd wait for Amazon to go on sale again.