Nobody can say that media company E.W. Scripps
Suppose you want to change your electricity provider. You input your postal code and fill out a questionnaire, answering questions about the size of your home and number of family members. uSwitch crunches the numbers and provides multiple options to save you money. You select one, and in about 15 minutes, the uSwitch engine gets you changed over to your new service provider.
Taking advantage of the U.K.'s deregulated market for utilities, uSwitch serves up comparison information in such venues as home phone, electricity, gas, and broadband services, as well as credit cards. On the conference call announcing the purchase, Scripps indicated that at some point it will move the company over to the U.S. for non-utility products.
The service seems to be a win-win for everyone. The customer saves money, the merchant gets a new customer, and uSwitch gets a commission.
It is, however, a hefty purchase price for Scripps. The buy is expected to be dilutive to Scripps' earnings per share in 2006 (where it will cost about $0.10 to $0.15 per share) and 2007. But on the other hand, if you look at the spate of acquisitions over the past year involving comparison-shopping engines, this purchase is in line with valuations.
It's also in line with the types of diversification that Scripps has long been known for. Founded in 1878, the company got its start in the newspaper business. But by the 1940s, it had ventured into radio and television; in the 1980s, it got its foot in the cable industry; and it still invests aggressively in Internet properties. Last year, the company spent $525 million for Shopzilla, a leading online destination for comparison shopping.
What's more, uSwitch is growing at a sizzling rate. For 2006, the company is expected to post revenues of $40 million to $45 million and profits of $10 to $15 million. Keep in mind that Scripps' acquisition of Shopzilla looked pricey at the time, too. Yet based on the company's fourth-quarter results, the Shopzilla acquisition turned out to be a major boost for growth. Revenues were $63.2 million and profits came to $20.3 million, up from revenues of $25.1 million and segment profits of $5.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2004.
According to the conference call, Scripps believes that interactive-shopping services are in the early stages of sustained growth. Consumers are indeed going increasingly to the Net to make informed purchase decisions, while merchants want -- and get -- accountability for their advertising dollars.
The traditional-media model is branded advertising. But as people use gadgets like TiVo
As the traditional-media sector sags, expect more companies to adopt the Scripps approach. There are plenty of prospects left in online comparison shopping, including MyRatePlan and Smarter. In the meantime, Scripps will have a time advantage in learning about and integrating these newfangled properties. As befits its heritage, it looks like the company is once again learning to adapt.
Fool contributor Tom Taulli does not own shares of companies mentioned in this article.