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Retailers, including Best Buy (NYSE: BBY ) , are leaving nothing to chance this upcoming holiday shopping season. As if competing with other traditional big-box stores weren't enough, Best Buy (and others) has Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) , along with the online divisions of Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , Target (NYSE: TGT ) , and most every other e-tailer of note, directly in its sights.
Aggressively marketing during the holidays is all well and good, particularly for consumers hungry for bargains during the season. But Best Buy is already struggling to maintain margins, it's bleeding cash, and somehow the release of the Insignia Flex tablet doesn't instill a great deal of confidence. Which raises the question: Will Best Buy's holiday efforts do more harm than good?
Like most every retailer before it, Best Buy announced the hiring of new associates this holiday season, adding 24,000 "blue shirts" to the 167,000 already on board, to give shoppers "another reason to choose Best Buy." With the company offering same-day pickup for consumers who purchase online, extending the return policy until Jan. 24, and continuing last year's free-shipping offer, Best Buy will need all available hands on deck.
As impactful as Best Buy's new associates will be on overhead, this will pale in comparison to the margin pressure felt this quarter by implementing its "price match guarantee." This year, Best Buy's guarantee goes beyond matching the prices advertised at Target, Wal-Mart, and the other usual cast of characters.
Find a good deal at Amazon.com, Apple.com, Buy.com, or most any online shopping alternative? Tell the Best Buy associate about it, and you'll receive the lower price. In theory, you can picture shoppers going online, finding what they want at a price that makes sense, and then bouncing over to the nearest Best Buy to fulfill their purchase. A sort of reversal on the showrooming theme; at least, in theory.
The question investors need to ask is: What will the impact of Best Buy's efforts to get holiday shoppers in the stores, with wallets ready, have on those already squeezed margins? Generating revenues is all well and good, but only part of the financial story. If top-line growth doesn't equate to improvements on the bottom line, investors are left with a glossy financial statement with no substance.
Tablet wars, continued
Not to be outdone, Best Buy is rolling out its own tablet on Nov. 11, running Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android OS. The rollout of the tablet itself, called the Insignia Flex, isn't a new development: Best Buy let that cat out of the bag a week ago. What's new is the pricing, and it's not good. At $239 to $259, Best Buy's Insignia Flex is $40 to $60 more than Amazon's Kindle Fire HD and another tablet newbie, the Google Nexus.
Though the $250 (give or take) Best Buy wants for Insignia may look reasonable alongside the price of Apple's latest iPad ($499), that's simply not a fair comparison. The number of apps, quality of the touchscreen, wireless capabilities, and a host of other iPad features puts it in another category. Which brings us back to the Nexus and Kindle, and the additional $40 to $60 price tag.
Where does that leave Best Buy and Insignia Flex? Somewhere in the midst of an already crowded and hyper-competitive playing field. It's hard to imagine Insignia making a real splash for Best Buy during the holidays, sitting on the shelf next to an iPad, Nexus, Samsung, and other tablet alternatives.
For new Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, it must feel like someone dropped him into the middle of burning house. Same-store sales have fallen in eight of the last nine quarters, revenues are following the same path, and with $680 million in cash -- half of what it was the prior quarter -- and no operating cash flow to speak of, it's time for drastic measures. Unfortunately, generating sales at the cost of margins isn't a long-term solution to Best Buy's immediate problems.
Apple is a viable investment alternative this holiday season. If you thought the release of the new iPhone caused a stir, Apple's online and in-store shopping is sure to be huge. What impact will that have on the long-term viability of Apple stock? The Fool's premium report on Apple weighs the risk and the opportunities the industry bellwether represents -- now, and into the future. To learn more, click here for the Apple premium report.