Recently, we've heard talk of crooked hedgies, bent journalists, pure-hearted strippers, a former boxer turned CEO, and a murky mastermind a.k.a. "the Sith Lord." Is this an old episode of Spenser: For Hire or the story surrounding an online provider of overstock merchandise?
I'd like to step back from all the skullduggery of the past couple of weeks and address just one basic question. Is Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick Overstock.com
The optimistic case for Overstock focuses on its remarkable revenue growth. Sure, the company is not profitable at the moment, but neither was Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick Amazon.com
Not so fast. A closer look at some of the company's numbers raises some worrying concerns about this rosy scenario. In the table at the bottom of this article, we can see that, yes, revenues are increasing dramatically.
With spending for advertising and marketing going up by 120% year over year in Q2 and by 284% in the quarter before that, this rise in sales is understandable. Overstock's CEO Patrick Byrne admitted as much in his recent conference call, during which he stated: "Whatwe're doing is ... trying to keep our growth up ... the dumb way, which is just with extra marketing spending."
Now, Byrne also went on to say that he thought CRM and personalization would eventually allow the company to grow while at the same time reducing spending on marketing. I think this assumption places considerable faith in technology, while also underestimating some of the problems with Overstock's business model. But more on this in a moment.
Despite rapid revenue increases over the past six quarters, the company continues to generate operating losses. In the most recent quarter, its operating loss doubled the shortfall from the previous quarter.
The optimists will dismiss the operating losses. Once the revenues get large enough, they'll argue, the profits will follow just as they did with Amazon -- which, by the way, delivered operating profits of $440 million in 2004 and $101 million in the most recent quarter.
With all due respect to the bulls, I think it's unwise for investors to bank on Overstock becoming the next Amazon. Whether it was the result of excellent branding or whatever, the latter company is the go-to place for non-shoppers like myself who now know where to go when they want a book, a CD, or a DVD. Overstock, on the other hand, doesn't yet appear to have the same brand strength to command the loyalty of ordinary non-shoppers.
At present, more than half of the company's sales come from what it calls its "fulfillment partner segment." This segment includes revenues from goods that are sold on the company's website but produced and delivered by third parties. These goods are, for the most part, readily available elsewhere by using a good search engine like Google
In other words, there seem to be very few barriers to entry for what Overstock sells. This point is crucial, it seems to me, since the bullish case depends on exuberant revenue growth well into the next decade. What happens if those revenues slow because of an ever-growing army of online competitors? Will the losses get even bigger?
With Amazon or even Stock Advisor pick Netflix
Let's face it. The odds of catching lightning in a bottle with any online retailer are long ones, and the risks of losing a considerable chunk of your cash are great. Remember Pets.com or Toysmart.com? Before investing your hard-earned cash in an unprofitable business, ask yourself how the company in question intends to win and retain a loyal customer base over the long haul. In the case of Overstock, I haven't yet heard a satisfactory answer to that question.
All that being said, I hope Patrick Byrne and his company are able to prove me wrong. As a former academic myself, it's good to see another one running the show at a $750 million company.
As for my take on the recent controversy regarding Byrne's allegations of unfair business practices? If he thinks that's a good use of his time, who am I to say otherwise? My own view is that his shareholders would be better served by his legal team handling this matter. And frankly, I can't imagine anyone being more likely to invest in this stock after the recent slanging match on CNBC between Byrne and Jeff Matthews.
Quaterly Figures for Overstock
|Q1 2004||Q2 2004||Q3 2004||Q4 2004||Q1 2005||Q2 2005|
|Operating Profit (loss)||($2,294)||($2,403)||($3,045)||$2,391||($3,402)||($6,064)|
When you're done, you're still not done. You can vote and let us know who you think won this Duel. Overstock.com was recommended last year in our Rule Breakers newsletter service. Amazon, eBay, and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. For a 30-day free trial to Rule Breakers, clickhere. For a free trial to Stock Advisor, clickhere.
John Reeves owns shares in Netflix. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy .