While most American businesses are trimming their exposure to the troubled economies of Europe, Barnes & Noble
This morning, the ailing bookseller announced that it had chosen John Lewis, the British department-store chain, to launch two of its newest e-readers in the United Kingdom. According to Jamie Iannone, the president of digital products at B&N: "John Lewis is where knowledgeable customers turn for trusted advice on the best products to purchase, and they are a perfect partner to help launch Nook in the U.K."
Before getting too excited about the 95-year-old company's first foray abroad, however, I would caution potential investors from interpreting it as a catalyst for a turnaround at the struggling bookseller.
Why B&N's international expansion won't save it
The main reason the move won't save B&N is that, not unlike its belated entrance to the e-book arena, the move is years behind the already established U.K. presence of Amazon.com
When Amazon opened its fourth massive fulfillment center in the country in 2008, national and local dignitaries lined up to heap praise upon the e-commerce giant, calling it an "iconic global company right at the forefront of the e-economy" and "one of only a handful of truly world brands that have emerged since the interest changed the way we live our lives."
Meanwhile, when B&N lauded the "award-winning Nook reading experience" and noted that the move will "fortify [its] newly announced presence in the U.K. and enable shoppers [there] to see, touch and experience Nook devices," nary a whimper was heard from the wider world.
Why? Because the Nook doesn't matter. Leaving Amazon aside for the moment, despite B&N's protestations to the contrary, the Nook is a second-rate device in a market populated by the likes of Apple and Samsung, both of which have dramatically better technology and more money to invest. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that B&N can hardly get its devices to work within its stores.
In addition, under its partnership with John Lewis, only two of its devices will be displayed in 37 physical locations throughout the country. Not insignificantly, the two selected are the least expensive -- the Nook Simple Touch, retailing at $99. and the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, retailing at $139.
More fundamentally, however, there's a legitimate question as to just how long the struggling bookseller can continue to fund operations. The company has failed to turn a profit in five out of the past six quarters. In its most recent fiscal year, it burned through $188 million in free cash flow, leaving it with only $54 million of cash in the bank. After last quarter, that figure dropped to $20 million. And most recently, the bookseller has been seeking to stymie an erosion in its Nook business by aggressively discounting its self-described popular devices.
To make matters worse, moreover, as I discussed two weeks ago, the bookseller essentially drained its balance sheet of capital when it paid its chairman of the board, Len Riggio, nearly $600 million for B&N College, an amalgamation of campus-based bookstores that controlled the parent company's trade name. The acquisition transformed the company from one with a healthy, positive tangible book value to one that owes more than it owns, severely restricting its borrowing capabilities.
If anything, in turn, and in the absence of a sale, the added expense of international expansion will probably only accelerate this stock's descent to zero.
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