It was a busy year for Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) in 2018. The company hit a number of impressive milestones, including briefly topping a $1 trillion market cap before being hit by the year-end correction. Amazon made headway in a number of promising areas of its business and made impressive inroads into others. The strength of the company's underlying operations propelled its stock to new heights, and Amazon trounced the broader market, gaining more than 28% compared with a 6% loss by the S&P 500.
Amazon is scheduled to release its fourth-quarter results after the market close on Thursday, Jan. 31. Let's look back at its third quarter and review some recent developments for any insight into the company's earnings.
A disappointing quarter?
For the third quarter, Amazon's revenue grew 29% year over year to nearly $56.6 billion while earnings per share surged more than 10X to reach $5.75. Revenue came in just shy of analysts' consensus estimates of $57 billion, while profits soared past expectations of $3.10 per share.
Amazon saw strength across all its operating segments. Operating margins improved across the board, and while the international segment has yet to reach profitability, operating loss margins improved from a negative 6.8% in the prior-year quarter to negative 2.5%. Operating margins in North American soared more than 13-fold year over year from 0.4% to 5.9%. Amazon Web Services also boasted improvement, climbing from 25% of sales in the year-ago period to 31%. These impressive gains in operating margins all contributed to the company's soaring profitability.
The company revealed that Amazon Business, its business-to-business platform, had achieved a run rate of more than $10 billion per year, and listed a host of impressive statistics regarding the number of Fortune 500 companies, local governments, hospitals, and educational institutions that make up its customer base.
Another segment that is quickly coming into focus for Amazon is its advertising business. The company has reported triple-digit growth in each of the past three quarters, and is expected to top $10 billion in revenue for 2018.
One of the biggest contributors to the upcoming results will be the holiday shopping season. Just before the sun set on 2018, Amazon reported that it had seen a record-breaking holiday season, selling more items worldwide than ever before. The company also shared a few metrics regarding the results.
Amazon said that voice-controlled shopping with Alexa more than tripled from the same time last year, and that millions of Prime members used Alexa for such purchases. The company also said that tens of millions of customers globally started a free trial or paid membership with Prime, and that Amazon shipped more than 1 billion items free to Prime subscribers. In addition, the company sold millions more Amazon-branded devices during the holidays compared to a year ago. The biggest sellers were the newest edition of the Echo Dot, the 4K Fire TV stick with Alexa remote, and its top-of-the-line Echo smart speaker.
The holidays weren't the only contributor that could boost the company's results.
Earlier this month, Amazon's IMDb announced the debut of its Freedive streaming video service, an ad-supported platform that will feature hit TV shows and movies -- and will certainly add to the company's quickly growing advertising coffers.
A look ahead
For the fourth quarter, Amazon is anticipating revenue of between $66.5 billion and $72.5 billion, which would result in year-over-year growth between 10% and 20%. The company is also forecasting operating income in a range of $2.1 billion to $3.6 billion, which would represent year-over-year growth ranging from flat to an increase of about 71%.
While we don't want to fall into the trap of short-term thinking, looking to Wall Street's expectations can provide broader context regarding overall market sentiment for the company. Analysts' consensus estimates are calling for revenue of $71.87 billion -- an increase of 18.9%, coming near the top of Amazon's guided range -- and EPS of $5.67, an increase of 163%.
With so many ways to achieve growth and profitability, it's hard to bet against Amazon. Investors should just buy shares and hold on for the ride, as I see a company that is positioned to soar over the coming decade, though it won't always play out in the shorter term.
We'll know more when Amazon reports earnings after the market close on Thursday, Jan. 31.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Danny Vena owns shares of Amazon. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.