Chinese E-Tail Isn't Dead, But It's Not Breathing

If you're an online retailer posting a 53% surge in sales in your latest quarter, it would be easy to get excited. If you're growing with rapidly expanding gross margins to the point where your adjusted losses are now being reversed into profits, it would seem to be a good cause for a celebration.

If you also happen to be in China -- where Web-based bookseller Dangdang (NYSE: DANG  ) and online discounter Vipshop (NYSE: VIPS  ) have been on a tear in recent months -- that kind of healthy growth and operational improvement would seem to trigger a healthy rally.

Well, it hasn't played out that way for LightInTheBox (NYSE: LITB  ) . The stock plunged 40% on Tuesday after posting its quarterly results and offering an uninspiring outlook. The carnage didn't end there, as the China-based e-tailer of dresses, house wares, and other items saw its shares slip another 4% on Wednesday and are trading noticeably lower again today several hours into the trading day.

Even after this week's brutal sell-off, the shares are still trading above its June IPO price of $9.50. However, it's going to be hard for LightInTheBox to win back the confidence of investors after coming up short in its first quarterly report as a public company.

Yes, revenue grew 53% to $72.2 million, but analysts were holding out for $75.8 million. That's bad, but it gets worse. LightInTheBox is now targeting just $68 billion to $70 million in revenue for the current quarter. Analysts were braced for a sequential decline. They were modeling $78.5 million in revenue as the world continues to take advantage of LightInTheBox's advantaged position.

Vipshop also offered up softer-than-expected guidance a week earlier, but it wasn't this bad.

LightInTheBox is in an interesting place. Unlike Dangdang that ships books and other general merchandise to China's growing base of Internet users, most of LightInTheBox sales are overseas. Europe accounted for 61% of its revenue with the Americas at 19% in its latest quarter. It's able to source items locally on the cheap, including custom-ordered wedding gowns and cocktail dresses and still turn a healthy profit even with free worldwide shipping.

It's an interesting model -- and a profitable one, unlike Dangdang's -- but the market only gives you one time to make a first impression in your debut quarter as a public company.

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