For me the enlightenment came almost 10 years ago, before the Net was won. It was on GEnie, a popular online service before America Online (NYSE: AOL) made text-based interfaces obsolete. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) was running its first-ever Monopoly promotion. The burger-hungry received game pieces named after the Atlantic City streets in the classic board game. Collect all of the same colored pieces and a prize awaited. The problem with these contests was that people never knew if they had landed the rare piece in the series or if it was just one of the countless dupes.
On the GEnie message boards the veil of consumer ignorance was lifted. Everyone chimed in with the pieces they had collected. Eventually the identities of the relevant pieces were filtered out. A bunch of early pioneers knew what they needed and were probably spared a few calories along the way.
What am I getting at with this story? Simple. I propose the unpopular view that online commerce will suffer at the hands of the very patrons it hopes to attract, because of the very medium that serves as its lifeline.
The irony might sting. The hook might drag me away from tonight's recap. The feel-good gauge is teetering on E, I know, but please read this through before you burn the Edible dolls in effigy. At the very least, use heat-resistant gloves to light the match. Hurting you will never be my intention.
Internet merchants, ideally, want you to head their way directly. They don't want to be an afterthought. Log on, type in www.amazon.com, and clean out the warehouse. Come and get it! Any other path costs the e-tailer money. The marketing costs mount with banner ads lining the Web. Affiliate programs shave 5-15% off visits that originate elsewhere.
That much, while hurling spitballs at Pollyanna projections of low overhead in e-tail, has come to be expected. The online infrastructure savings allow for the heightened marketing tabs. That's fine. There is still enough margin elbow room to price wares aggressively relative to the offline alternatives.
But then, like the fifteenth minute of a Scooby Doo caper, the meddling kids got in the way. Opportunity has washed up a wave of comparison shopping sites. Search engines like MySimon.com and eCompare.com are leveling the playing field -- to smithereens. Punch in an item and you will retrieve a list of what it is selling for at the major online stores, including shipping in some cases. The convenience of e-commerce, the major draw for merchants and investors alike, has been exploited to the consumer's advantage. We know it's Park Place, Mickey D. We're ripping Boardwalk to shreds.
Can things get any worse for the merchants and any better for the community? They have. Shopping portals are intriguing online malls. The most popular Internet destinations like AOL, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO), and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) have embraced their own electronic retailing gateways. The featured stores pay for the cyber-tenant exposure. Again, that was expected. Even in the online world there is rent to pay. The real problem stems from a pesky creative community.
Take a stroll to BargainFlix.com and two things will happen: You will thank me, and the online merchants will spank me. There, regulars submit promotional discount codes and hyperlinks to great online deals. Buy.com had a $20 offer as part of a Microsoft road show. Didn't go? Bargain Flix will hook you up. What do you need from BigStar? $10 off a $25 order? Free shipping? Free movie offer? The choice is yours. The shopping portals are too protective of their sponsor stores to ever offer comparison shopping or serve as coupon consolidators -- like Deal Catcher. The kicker is that these crafty Web masters have also signed up for the affiliate programs. So, not only are they standing outside the storefront photocopying discounts -- they're also taking in a 5-15% royalty off the hyperlinks for themselves.
Ultimately, the power of community is doing online what has been impossible to achieve offline -- keeping retailers honest. At a typical shopping mall you might have just one music store. One bookstore. The pricing leeway stretches as far as the distance to the nearest competitor. On the Internet it is all just one click away.
Understand that this is the perspective of just one bargain-smitten Fool. Rule Breaker rose an amazing 14% last month. That's a great year for most investors, me included. So far this year it is up 57.24%. I'm humbled. My track record is made of bread crumbs trailed by starving birds. But I think I have mastered the art of online buying on the cheap. I've been doing my holiday shopping in small chunks and saving big thanks to a strategy of finding the best prices through comparison sites, then plugging away through discount offers tagged with free shipping. I am trying to see the future through my own frugal e-shopper eyes, and it is hardly the consensus sentiment right now.
It implies some less-than-perfect weather for some Rule Breaker holdings but a bonanza for others. Let's highlight how some would make out if my vision fares thee well.
Excite@Home (Nasdaq: ATHM). No question. Big, big winner. The rush for faster access through online stores and the eventual push for making e-commerce a more interactive multimedia experience lies in the widening of broadband.
America Online. Another winner. While the shopping-portal promise may be overblown, AOL will still be a big winner in the near term with its user-friendly interface drawing in new users, and in the long term as it embraces faster access to keep its growing subscriber base from fleeing.
Today AOL sold $1.25 billion of zero coupon convertible bonds -- further cementing its feet atop the cyberhill. Folks are paying $551.26 today for a note that will be worth $1000 in 20 years. On an annualized basis that is less than 3% a year in appreciation. Naturally folks are buying in for the convertible feature, which is priced at a 30% premium to yesterday's close. I know what you're thinking: Who would buy this? Who would be confident enough to assume that AOL will be around in 2019 to pay off the debenture yet still pay a juicy premium over buying the stock outright? I believe that demand paves the blue highways.
Getting back to my theory, what about Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN)? Tough call here. The online community will continue to keep prices in check. Margins will be hard-pressed to soar as long as any peer offering a noisy discount triggers a domino effect. Think airline industry -- only fiercer and without the peanuts. But there is still room for optimism. As the largest player, Amazon should also reap economies of scale. It might be difficult to ever gain control of the top-line pricing, but it can always master its operating efficiency all the way down.
eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY). A winner in the sense that as offline shoppers flock online for bargains, it will create a larger market for eBay's auctions. You are seeing some auction consolidators like AuctionRover (which today became the first site to ink a licensing pact with eBay for search engine inclusion) growing. However, different rules apply here. In the retail realm, searches are for identical goods. In the consumer marketplace, what is tangible? Can a search engine tell the difference between a Mickey Mantle card in mint or fair condition? Can it convey factors like geographical location, seller history, terms, and other discrepancies? Not really. Not yet.
The Internet is amazing. Just browsing through Robyn Gearey and David Wolpe's Guide to Shopping Online, you'll realize that cyberspace houses one whopper of a mall. Where it goes from here will always be up for debate.
Henry Blodget, Merrill Lynch's popular Internet stock analyst, sees an industry shakeout where smaller e-tailers fade from investor interest after the holiday season comes to a close. Only Rule Breakers need apply in the new year.
What do you think? If you have holiday e-commerce comments and want to be a radio star, Mac Greer, our weekly radio show producer, wants you! If not, you can always fume at me quietly. Then again, maybe you agree with me. Someone has to pay for these online bargains, no? Or have I missed my mark completely only to find that Santa is for real this online holiday season? If I'm right, you might remember that I told you so. If not, I'll deny ever writing this. A revisionist visionary's work is never done.