It's not easy making a buck in the low-margin world of retail. Witness online and by-phone contact-lens hawker 1-800 CONTACTS
The company managed to earn just $269,000 in the second quarter of this year, a pittance on its $61.8 million worth of sales, yielding a net margin of just 0.43%. And that's the good news.
The bad news? Over the course of H1 2005, the company had even worse net margins, just 0.37% on $122.1 million in sales. On the other hand, "bad news" is relative, and when compared to its performance last year, 1-800 CONTACTS actually looks pretty good. In both Q1 and Q2 of fiscal 2004, the company booked sizeable losses. In fact, it hasn't posted a single profitable year since 2001.
The complications don't end there. As novel a concept as selling prescription eyewear "sight unseen" might seem, the company faces stiff competition from other discount vision retailers. Established chain competitors such as LensCrafters and National Vision
But according to 1-800 CONTACTS, all of the above pale in comparison to what it considers its greatest threat: an alliance between the nation's eye doctors and "one large manufacturer" that only sells lenses to those doctors and their affiliated retail stores. This, according to 1-800 CONTACTS, prevents consumers from buying contacts at a discount and denies 1-800 CONTACTS "millions in sales and income."
However, the company seems to feel that a solution to this dilemma is imminent. If its statement that millions in actual income (as opposed to low-margin revenues) are at stake proves true, the company might be poised to multiply its recently revived profits.
Personally, I think this presents us with a real "buy what you know" moment. I'm not sure how significant it would be if this nameless manufacturer let 1-800 CONTACTS distribute its products. Having worn contacts for nearly two decades, I have yet to get a prescription for a brand of contacts that I couldn't buy cheaply online from 1-800 CONTACTS, which suggests that it may be exaggerating the source of its troubles. Unless your situation is different, consider taking the company's hopeful "forward-looking statement" with a grain or two of salt.
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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares in any company named above.