About a year ago I blogged that “Showrooming is no longer a sideshow, but now the main event”. (Showrooming is the practice of evaluating an item at a retail outlet, and subsequently purchasing the item online for a much lower price.) In this blog I went to great pains to show that showrooming risk impacts earnings, and that investors would shun business models that had a high degree of showrooming risk. I even went as far as to use Best Buy (BBY) as an example of where Wall Street analysts predicted that showrooming would hurt earnings, and subsequently beat down the stock price.
I was wrong. Well, at least partially wrong.
Since the writing of that blog Wall Street bid up the price of the stock from the mid-teens to the high forties. Management proclaimed that Best Buy would “be the Ultimate Holiday Showroom.” The theory was that this would improve foot traffic to the stores, and subsequently dramatically increase sales. The theory was proven out, and throughout the year management demonstrated that same store traffic was improving and Best Buy became one of the great turnaround stories of 2013. They were taking on Amazon.com head on, and winning. The 2013 holiday season would be Best Buy’s victory lap.
And then the bombshell. In mid-January Best Buy released their earnings for the previous quarter and the results could not have been more of a shock to Wall Street. While same store sales were essentially the same as the previous holiday season, the practice of “price matching” Amazon had decimated margins. Management claimed that this was an “unexpected speed bump on the road to recovery” and was the result of operating in an “extremely promotional environment.” In the days following the earnings announcement the stock was bid down to 50% of its 52 week high.
I would argue that we are not in “an extremely promotional” environment. In fact, quite the opposite. The advances in technology, along with merchants offering price matching guarantees, has created unprecedented pressure on retail margins. There is nothing “extreme” in this environment. This is the new “normal.”
So should investors completely abandon the entire retail sector, in favor of industries that promise higher returns? Not at all.
Before making a bet on a retail stock, investors should understand the showrooming risk profile of the company, and what management is doing to address this risk. If management can’t tell investors how much exposure they face from online price competition from deep discounters, investors shouldn’t walk away, they should run. On the other hand, if management can tell investors precisely what their risk exposure is, investors should listen to how management intends to manage that risk. If management simply suggests that price matching is how they will combat this risk, ask for their resumes to see if any of them used to work at Best Buy.
This new “normal” presents great opportunities for both retailers and investors. Those retailers that “get it” will well outperform their peer group. Those retailers that don’t, present a great opportunity for those investors who like to operate in the “shorts” market.
David Coleman is the CEO and Founder of Brandoogle (brandoogle.com). Brandoogle works with retailers and brands to combat showrooming with a proprietary suite of software and services. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.