Here at the Fool, I'm surrounded by people who have a thing for eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) . David Gardner highlighted eBay as a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick long ago. Bill Mann sold his stake in eBay and felt regret afterwards. Heck, Rick Munarriz was so enamored of eBay last summer that he was ready to get hitched.
Then there's me, over in the corner. I have a dirty secret. I hate eBay.
Yep, that's right. Hating eBay; it's hard to do, isn't it? It's pretty absurd to think of a company -- and stock -- this successful... and hate it.
Back in the late '90s (when else?), many cubicles and offices before I worked at the Fool, I recall discussing eBay (and eToys -- ahem! -- as well as Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) ) with a co-worker. Regarding eBay, he said, "Isn't that the greatest idea ever?" I probably nodded and smiled, being generally a nonconfrontational person. But as I recall, I was thinking, "But that's other people's stuff." (Thinking it -- heck, my brain was screaming it!)
Later on, I bought shares of Amazon.com instead. (Not a bad choice, as it turned out, but still.) When it came to eBay, I just didn't get the allure. (Nor did I get why it's a "bay" and why the "e" is lower case. What the...?) I smugly waited for eBay's dot-com demise, where it would join the likes of other high-profile Internet casualties (supposedly "good ideas," all) such as eToys and Kozmo.com. As we all know now, that never happened.
What's not to like?
Yeah, I had no idea that a company that allows multitudes of people and businesses to sell various and sundry items harvested from their basements and attics (such as old-school cow creamers, Pez dispensers, and red rotary telephones that you can pretend are "The Bat Phone") would make such a huge impression. All I could think was this was like a glorified yard sale, attracting fringe types who are looking for random collectibles and bric-a-brac, such as pet rocks, Looney Tunes jelly jars, or macramé plant hangers. "So what?" said I.
Of course, it wasn't really so. Little did I realize that it would be the place where people who are adept at living below their means would find items -- not just gently used but also brand spanking new -- at cut-rate prices. Little did I realize that it would go far beyond flea market, and some retailers would set up shop in eBay's virtual bazaar. Little did I realize... famous last words.
Indeed, I was chagrined to learn a few years ago that a friend of mine was getting Ann Taylor (NYSE: ANN ) Loft duds "new with tags" for cheap, cheap, cheap -- from eBay. Meanwhile, another friend has built a formidable inventory of great Dr. Martens (my own footwear of choice) from eBay -- again, these being brand new, in the box, at a mere fraction of the regular cost. (She later bid on a pair for me and executed the deal -- I refused to do it. Stubbornness is one of my failings.)
The anecdotes above don't even begin to cover the goods you can get. Computers and related equipment. First-edition books. Trekkie paraphernalia of all kinds. A once-used wedding dress modeled by a bitter ex-husband. Cars, darn it, cars! Its products run the gamut from utilitarian to big ticket to gloriously campy.
So, it's not all about yard sale chic (although that's definitely part of the appeal). Many a small business exists solely on eBay. People are also getting brand-new items from companies that have excess inventories. Meanwhile, buyers bid on these products from the comfort of home, with the ease of some mouse clicks.
Talk about adding some insult to injury. It's not just that eBay's business plan was so brilliant -- and so uniquely geared toward the Internet -- that it flew completely over my head. eBay has also proven a whopper of an investment. Its market cap has skyrocketed from $3 billion in 1998 to $75 billion today. That's because you're hard-pressed to find a stock with the kind of sales and earnings growth that eBay has exhibited over the years, even during times of economic turmoil. Heck, eBay's emphasis on bargains helps insulate it against economic uncertainty. Just check out eBay's latest quarterly numbers for more of the standard fare.
Digging a little deeper, there's still lots to like. eBay's free cash flow, a measure that we at the Fool like very much, clocked in at $508.7 million last year, a 50% increase on a year-over-year basis. The company's margins have been steadily increasing over time; its 80%-plus gross profit margins are enough to make Amazon.com weep. Another glance at eBay's most recent 10-K reveals a company that's flush, with $1.72 billion in cash and near-cash items and zero debt.
During the summer, longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz (eBay's suitor, as we've already established) covered another glowing quarter, pointing out that eBay is poised to take advantage of growth overseas (although Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) has its own auction service in one of the major markets, China).
As I happen to have been such a hater, though, I'd like to point out a few things that could sap some strength out of the mighty. Smaller scale bartering sites are cropping up. Privately held, Spartan Craigslist has been cited by some as a possible competitive force, given its grassroots popularity. (Although eBay's already got its eye on that action.) Bill Mann recently pointed out the importance of customer loyalty, and the fact that Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK ) hopes to capitalize on a growing minority of disenchanted eBay members. Even PayPal has suffered from some recent glitches that could make for some angry eBay flunkies, though it did in fact apologize (or did it?).
I'm not going to go on the record to say that anything could take eBay down, though. Anything could happen in this quickly evolving world we live in, but heck. eBay's been defying conventional wisdom from the start.
My own road to recovery
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I feel much better. It's time to take the high road and get past all the hate. (Especially since hating things isn't high on my list of ways to spend time.) I guess I have to admit that my feelings about eBay are in large part a case of what they call "sour grapes." (It's the painful echo of my own thought, "That'll never work!", that still irks me. As well as the fact that I would never have taken a chance on this stock that, for years, has been chastised for being "overvalued," a belief that given eBay's heated growth and unique business model, has never been proven to be true.)
Come to think of it, there are a lot of attributes to being a good Fool -- to learn lessons, one of which, surely, is to be able to accept when you have been wrong and to think out of the box a little bit when you assess a business or a stock. (And of course, it takes an open mind to pinpoint a company that's about to break all the rules.)
I've come up with a game plan, though, to get past my irrational hatred of Meg & Co., now that I've taken the first step, by admitting my secret here. I'm preparing to bid in my first eBay auction. After all, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
eBay and Amazon.com are bothMotley Fool Stock Advisorpicks. If you're looking to identify adventurous, high-growth stocks that break the rules of conventional wisdom, don't forget to check out our new service,Motley Fool Rule Breakers. Or talk about all things eBay with other Fools by clicking here.
Alyce Lomax no longer owns shares of Amazon.com; she owns shares of none of the companies mentioned in this commentary. She has lost the first couple auctions she's tried on eBay. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.