When opportunity comes knocking, will you be home to answer? Sure, many of you are home for the holidays anyway, but if your homestead is becoming more familiar lately, you're not alone. Thanks to the Internet, you can be a hermit while still retaining your social graces. Advances in technology have made your home a worthy workspace by day and a hopping entertainment haven by night.
Did you notice that while offline retailers have been singing the blues, Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) has moved a record 56 million items over the last two months? Did you catch Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI) warning Wall Street earlier this month about poor video rentals on the heels of home-delivery specialist Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) raising its guidance for the holiday quarter? If it's not too late to place one more dinner setting at the table, the divergence between the offline and online experience called. It's coming home.
It's more than just a wired trend, though. Dorothy was a visionary when she cradled Toto, tapped her red slippers together, and repeated that there was no place like home. Can you blame her? Video-game consoles rival the quality of arcade games. Appliances are getting smarter. It's more than just a mere coincidence that the hot show in the cable television circuit right now is the home-remodeling hit Trading Spaces. In is in. Out is, well, out.
And when we do go out, the leashes are shorter. Air travel is down. Attendance at the largest theme parks is down. Yet, somehow, your nearby multiplex is hopping, with the movie industry scoring a record year at the box office.
While some of the blue-chip beneficiaries may be obvious -- such as Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) powering the home computer systems and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) filling the void left behind by your local thinning flea market -- some of the better homer plays are as small as they are pure, and in some cases surprising bargains.
Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK)
Let's start with the online plays. With BizRate.com estimating a 23% uptick in online sales over the holidays, some of the biggest percentage gainers in that $8 billion pie still have small slices. Overstock.com logged $25.2 million in sales over the past month, a 164% improvement from last year's seasonal showing. While it's easy to peg the company as little more than an online purveyor of clearances and closeouts, the Overstock story is better than that. Because it's buying distressed merchandise at rock-bottom prices, it still managed to post an operating profit and grow gross margins to 19% this past quarter. As the top line continues to grow, the economies of scale will blossom.
Offline closeout chains such as Big Lots (NYSE: BLI) and Tuesday Morning (Nasdaq: TUES) command twice the gross margins that Overstock is producing, yet the company is doing far better than Amazon was at this stage of the game. On a revenue basis, this is where Amazon was five years ago -- only Overstock is selling at a quarter of the online giant's market cap at the time. The fact that a lot of Overstock's wares are home goods is a "stay-at-home" stock bonus.
Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX)
Netflix is a small company with a big household name. The company is looking to close out the last few days of the year with at least 840,000 subscribers, most of them paying $19.95 a month for the right to rent out any three DVD titles at any given time, shipped for free both ways. That may seem like a lot of homes but it's just 0.6% of the market. Netflix continues to improve with every passing quarter. Free cash flow keeps rising. Customer acquisition costs keep falling. The churn rate that was starting to creep higher is sliding again. There's a hearty sidebar with more details of the Netflix story in our new Stocks 2003, but it's safe to say that the company's growth makes it a compelling play on the couch potato.
Sharper Image (Nasdaq: SHRP)
Logging off but still talking techie, there is one bricks-and-mortar chain doing gangbusters business as the high-end desire for home electronics and gadgetry continues to gain headway. Sharper Image is reporting a 7% gain in same-store-sales this month. This follows a huge 15% surge in comps for the month of November. Is there any wonder why folks are loading up on massage chairs and air purifiers? Yes. Home is where the state of the art is. Earlier this month, the company disclosed that it was trending towards the higher end of its bottom-line projections. If the momentum continues, Wall Street's profit estimates calling for the company to earn $1.05 this year and $1.23 next year may prove to be conservative. Trading at roughly 15 times forward earnings, Sharper Image appears to be as cheap as its products are not.
Restoration Hardware (Nasdaq: RSTO)
With more time spent at home, and the dirt-cheap refinancing market making it worth your while, what about the home-furnishing specialists? Retailers like Pier 1 Imports (NYSE: PIR) and Restoration Hardware should fare well as an alternative to the do-it-yourselfers lining up for plywood and staple guns at Home Depot (NYSE: HD) and Lowe's (NYSE: LOW). Restoration Hardware is the small cap here, and with good reason since the company filed its financials late on accounting concerns. It's ominous, sure, but the company isn't called Restoration Hardware for nothing. The hip retailer is ready to shoot from the hip and that makes it a potential bargain trading for a sixth of what the company's stock peaked at four years ago. Sales have been strong in the latter part of the year and profits are growing again.
Yes, it's true. Dorothy had to follow the golden yellow brick road to find her way home. But as for you? You've had that power all along. How far does that chair of yours recline? Ease back. Welcome home.
Rick Aristotle Munarriz wrote this article from his home. Granted, he did take a break to walk around the block for inspiration. His stock holdings, which include Netflix, can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.