Will Blue Nile Earn or Burn?

Margins matter. The more Blue Nile (Nasdaq: NILE  ) keeps of each buck it earns in revenue, the more money it has to invest in growth, fund new strategic plans, or (gasp!) distribute to shareholders. Healthy margins often separate pretenders from the best stocks in the market. That's why I check on my holdings' margins at least once a quarter. I'm looking for the absolute numbers, comparisons to sector peers and competitors, and any trend that may tell me how strong Blue Nile's competitive position could be.

Here's the current margin snapshot for Blue Nile and some of its sector and industry peers and direct competitors.

Company

TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin

 Blue Nile

21.6%

6.2%

4.1%

 Tiffany (NYSE: TIF  )

57.5%

17.7%

11.0%

 Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  )

24.9%

4.7%

2.8%

 Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD  )

27.8%

1.9%

0.6%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Unfortunately, that table doesn't tell us much about where Blue Nile has been, or where it's going. A company with rising gross and operating margins often fuels its growth by increasing demand for its products. If it sells more units while keeping costs in check, its profitability increases. Conversely, a company with gross margins that inch downward over time is often losing out to competition, and possibly engaging in a race to the bottom on prices. If it can't make up for this problem by cutting costs -- and most companies can't -- then both the business and its shares face a decidedly bleak outlook.

Of course, over the short term, the kind of economic shocks we recently experienced can drastically affect a company's profitability. That's why I like to look at five fiscal years' worth of margins, along with the results for the trailing 12 months (TTM), the last fiscal year, and last fiscal quarter (LFQ). You can't always reach a hard conclusion about your company's health, but you can better understand what to expect, and what to watch.

Here's the margin picture for Blue Nile over the past few years.

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Dollar amounts in millions. FY= fiscal year. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Dollar amounts in millions. FY= fiscal year. TTM = trailing 12 months.

(Because of seasonality in some businesses, the numbers for the last period on the right -- the TTM figures -- aren't always comparable to the FY results preceding them.)

Here's how the stats break down:

  • Over the past five years, gross margin peaked at 22.2% and averaged 20.9%. Operating margin peaked at 8.9% and averaged 6.9%. Net margin peaked at 6.5% and averaged 5.1%.
  • TTM gross margin is 21.6%, 70 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 6.2%, 70 basis points worse than the five-year average. TTM net margin is 4.1%, 100 basis points worse than the five-year average.

With recent TTM operating margins below historical averages, Blue Nile has some work to do.

If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're probably ahead of 95% of the market's individual investors. To stay ahead, learn more about how I use analysis like this to help me uncover the best returns in the stock market. Got an opinion on the margins at Blue Nile? Let us know in the comments below.

Seth Jayson had no position in any company mentioned here at the time of publication. You can view his stock holdings here. He is co-advisor of Motley Fool Hidden Gems, which provides new small-cap ideas every month, backed by a real-money portfolio. Best Buy is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Blue Nile is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Best Buy is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor choice. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Best Buy. The Fool owns shares of Best Buy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On November 12, 2010, at 11:56 AM, stuckinamobile wrote:

    Not again ?????? Another Fooish plug of a manipulated and fund controlled stock. Don't you think we see what you are doing here?

    This company has failed quarter after quarter to meet expectations or show growth. Lowering expectations to meet income is not growth. The latest surge after a magical penny beat was a joke. The only thing growing here is insider sales and stock compensation expense at around 30% of total profits. How much of that winds up in your pocket, Fool???

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