Data management and barcode scanner specialist Zebra Technologies (ZBRA -2.44%) sprinted across the finish line in Tuesday's first-quarter earnings report. The company beat Wall Street's estimates across the board and also exceeded management's own profit estimates by a country mile. And that's not the end of Zebra's surprises -- the company also raised its outlook for the rest of 2021 because the good times have only started to roll.

By the numbers

Zebra's first-quarter sales rose 28% year over year to $1.35 billion. Adjusted earnings jumped 79% higher, landing at $4.79 per diluted share. Your average analyst firm would have settled for earnings of roughly $4.39 per share on net revenues near $1.33 billion. Adjusted EBITDA margins rose from 19.1% to 25.3%. Here, Zebra's management had been aiming just above the 23% mark.

The business gains were spread out across all of Zebra's geographic regions and major product categories. When I asked CEO Anders Gustafsson to point out the biggest winner in the bunch, he simply declined to do so. Every unit performed above expectations. He did admit that Zebra's largest customers were at the forefront of the order flows in the first quarter, as they have been throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The large-scale shift toward contactless services and home-delivery options is forcing many companies to develop and maintain the infrastructure that these new operating models require, and Zebra is ready to support it.

A zebra stands on a golden-brown savanna, its stripes forming a barcode with numbers.

Image source: Getty Images.


The company is also settling several back-end issues. Chinese import tariffs weighed on Zebra's bottom-line profits in 2019 and 2020, but new manufacturing facilities in Mexico, Malaysia, and Vietnam are now producing equipment for the American market, dodging the tariff burden entirely. Last year's higher shipping expenses will stick around for another couple of quarters as the volume of international airline flights stays low. Zebra investors should keep an eye on the airline industry to get a feel for when this company's freight expenses might return to normal.

The most important problem in front of Zebra today is the global shortage of semiconductors.

"Some products are more exposed than others and we have a prudent planning process where we try to source components from several suppliers," Gustafsson said.

All of these issues were incorporated in Zebra's updated guidance, which came in above the Street's current targets both for the second quarter and the full fiscal year. This company is ready to trot.

Zebra largely works behind the scenes, rarely drawing attention to its own role in the business models of nearly every business on the market. Barcodes and RFID tags are everywhere. This may not be the first company you think of as a winner in e-commerce and global supply chains, but it should be on your short-list of companies worth a second look in that space.