What happened

Shares in data capture company Zebra Technologies (NASDAQ:ZBRA) rose 50% in 2020, according to data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence. But it wasn't all smooth sailing for the stock, with a significant decline in early March followed by a 100%-plus gain after that.

Logistics workers using scanners.

Image source: Getty Images.

For readers who don't know the company well, Zebra manufactures bar code scanners, RFID readers, mobile computers, and printers that capture real-time data. As data becomes an ever larger part of industry, it's essential to capture more and more of it through devices made by Zebra and a competitor like industrial conglomerate Honeywell International (NYSE:HON).

There were three main drivers for Zebra's share price appreciation in 2020:

  • According to management, Zebra has "substantially completed its initiative" to shift sourcing from China, allaying fears that trade tariffs would lead to escalating costs for the company. 
  • Its impressive recovery from the pandemic has soothed concerns over its exposure to clothing retailers and small businesses.
  • The sales recovery has been a lot stronger than management's guidance, and it's been backed up by a positive outlook from Honeywell, too.

Expanding on the sales recovery, management had forecast a 3% to 7% decline in the third quarter only to report a 0.2% increase. Moreover, it expects sales to increase by 3% to 7% in the fourth quarter.

So what

The acceleration in investment in digital technologies and automation caused by the pandemic is playing to Zebra's strengths. For example, if the surge in e-commerce demand means more investment in logistics, that means more demand for data capture products. As such, Zebra is probably a net beneficiary of the pandemic.

Now what

In the near term, investors should look for the fourth-quarter sales numbers because they may well come in ahead of guidance. Thinking longer term, the glass-half-empty view sees an artificial pull-forward in Zebra's sales in 2020, which will then correct itself in 2021.

On the other hand, the glass-half-full view sees the increased investment in digitization and automation as a structural change that will encourage wider adoption (and ultimately more sales) for Zebra. Given the strong secular trend in investing in automation, investors have every reason to believe the glass-half-full view will win out in 2021.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.