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Best Buy (NYSE: BBY ) really couldn't have picked a worse day to report a bad quarter, and make no mistake about it, the quarter was extremely bad. Tuesday morning, the Department of Commerce also reported that in November, overall retail sales had reached levels not seen since before the recession in 2007. I do believe that Best Buy's quarter was more of a company-specific misstep rather than an indictment of a weakening technology and electronics sector. However, the results point to trends that are boosting some technology companies and hurting others, particularly those involved in television manufacturing.
More options for consumers
I don't generally shop at Best Buy seeking a pleasurable experience or attentive and knowledgeable customer service; I think most consumers feel the same way. I understand that the big-box electronic retailer likes to promote a customer-centric appeal, but at its core it's a one-stop shop for all of your electronic needs. This wasn't a problem for the company when you couldn't find everything they sell online for the same price, and in many cases lower prices, from a variety of vendors. However, this is now the case, and Best Buy's management seems as lost as many of its employees trying to provide assistance on a vast array of gadgets.
It has not helped Best Buy that today's hot gadgets are smartphones and just about anything Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) makes. As a consumer, would you rather buy your iPad at Best Buy or directly from the source through Apple's online store or at one of its growing number of retail stores? If you are a Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) or AT&T (NYSE: T ) customer, are you buying a smartphone at Best Buy or at one of the wireless provider's retail locations? While Best Buy has done better than other retailers at getting ahead in offering Apple products and mobile products, in the end I think most would opt for the specialized service, and the opportunity to speak with the lookalikes at Apple's Genius Bar.
If it's not the specialized service that is contributing to market-share losses, maybe it's the online army of retailers led by Amazon.com, and the always imposing Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT ) continued push into the space. Best Buy's year-over-year online sales gains faded from 21% in the first quarter to just 7% in the third quarter.
An industry on the decline
From a broader prospective, investors can learn a lot from Best Buy's most recent quarterly report, aside from the fact that it was really bad. While I certainly would not be a buyer of Best Buy stock even after the beating it took on Tuesday, management's insight on continuing trends in the television business has me avoiding another name as well.
The flat-screen television was only a few years ago what tablets and smartphones are today. However, the once-booming business is on the wrong side of the slope, as consumers are shifting discretionary dollars toward mobile electronic devices. In addition, the premium television manufacturers that Best Buy promotes heavily have been hit particularly hard as the struggling economy has led to consumers downgrading to entry-level brands. Best Buy competitors like Wal-Mart and Target (NYSE: TGT ) have stolen market share by discounting these inexpensive brands, essentially using them as loss leaders.
In addition, consumers have been slow to adapt to the updated technology that the premium brands are pursuing, such as 3-D and IPTV (Internet protocol TV), as they wait for more content to develop. One obvious name investors might avoid on this news is Sony and some of its competitors in the premium television market. However, I'm more concerned about television component maker Corning (NYSE: GLW ) .
A struggling company
Corning is a specialty-glass maker that manufactures the glass for liquid crystal display (LCD) panels on flat-screen televisions. The collapse of Corning's fiber-optic business has made its LCD segment that much more important to its success. Corning has about 55% of the total LCD market, but it also represents close to 50% of the company's revenues, and just about all of its profit. So you can see how badly the company would be hurt by a continuing decline in television sales. Sure, the company's glass is used in many of the mobile devices and tablets that are flying out the door, but there is a lot less product needs in these devices.
Unfortunately, the Best Buy news isn't the only piece of negative data that has been reported about the LCD space recently. Last month, Corning reported that LCD prices continued to fall faster than volumes can rise. In addition, the company finished the third quarter with 17 weeks of inventory, which is an improvement over the 18.5 weeks of inventory it began the quarter with. However, this level is still on the high end of where the company would like to be. In addition, I don't think investors can look to Corning as a value play because it trades at about 15 times its free cash flow, which is a little rich for my blood.
Perhaps Corning investors can get excited about its new scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. As fellow Fool Rich Smith points out, the company has been promising investors $300 million in revenue streams from the innovation, and one analyst believes it has the potential to deliver more than $1 billion in annual revenue. These results are yet to be seen, but until we see more Gorilla Glass on more devices, I don't see any reason to play around with the broken glass.