Best Buy, the venerable electronics retailer, is hitting 52 week highs. Coming off a low of $24 in April, 2014 the current price of about $40 is a 67% increase in just 10 months. Analysts are now cheering investors to own the stock, with Marketwatch pronouncing that the last bearish analyst has thrown in the towel.
If you are a trader, perhaps you want to consider this stock. But if you aren’t an investment professional, and you buy and hold stocks for years, then Best Buy is not a stock you should own.
The bullish case for owning Best Buy is based on recovering sales per store, and recovering earnings, after a reduction in the number of stores, and employees, lowered costs. Further, with Radio Shack now in bankruptcy sales are showing an uptick as customers swing over. And that is expected to continue as Sears closes more stores on its marches toward bankruptcy. Additionally, it is hoped that lower gasoline prices will allow consumers to spend more on electronics and appliances at Best Buy.
But, this completely ignores the trend toward on-line retail sales, and the long-term deleterious impact this trend will have on Best Buy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, on-line sales as a percent of all retail have grown from less than 2.4% in 2005 to over 7.6% by end of 2014 – more than tripling! But more critical to this discussion, all retail sales includes automobiles, lumber, groceries – lots of things where there is little or no online volume.
As most folks know, the number one category for online sales is computers and consumer electronics, which consistently accounts for about 20% of ALL online retail. In fact, about 25% of all consumer electronics are sold online. So the growth in online retail is disproportionately in the Best Buy wheelhouse. The segment where Best Buy competes against streamlined online retailers such as NewEgg.com, ThinkGeek.com and the ever-dominant Amazon.com.
So while in the short term some traditional retail customers will now shift demand to Best Buy, this is not unlike the revenue “bounce” Best Buy received when Circuit City failed. Short term up, but the long term trend continued hammering away at Best Buy’s core market.
This is a big deal because the marginal economic impact of this shift is horrific to Best Buy. In traditional retail most costs are “fixed,” meaning they can’t be changed much month to month. The cost of real estate, store maintenance, utilities and staff cannot be easily adjusted – unless there is a decision to close a gob of stores. Thus losing even a few sales, what economists call “marginal” sales, wreaks havoc on earnings.
Back in 2010 and 2011 Best Buy made a net income (’12 and ’13 were losses) of about 2.6% – or about $2.60 on every $100 revenue. Cost of Goods sold is about 75% of revenue. So on $100 of revenue, $25 is available to cover fixed costs. If revenue falls by just $10, Best Buy loses $2.50 of margin to cover fixed costs. Remember, however, that the net income is only $2.60. So losing 10% of revenue ($10 out of the $100) means Best Buy loses $2.50 of contribution to fixed costs, and that is deducted from net income of $2.60, leaving Best Buy with a meager 10cents of profitability. A 10% loss of revenue wipes out 96% of profits!
Now you know why retailers who lose even a small part of their sales are suddenly closing stores right and left.
Looking forward, online retail sales are forecast to grow by another 57%, reaching 11% of total retail by 2018. But, as we know, this is disproportionately going to be driven by consumer electronics. Which means that while sales for Best Buy stores are up short term, long term they will plummet. That means there will be more store closings, and layoffs as sales shrink. And, increasingly Best Buy will have to compete head-to-head online against entrenched, leading competitors who have been stealing market share for 10+ years.
If you want to trade on the short-term uptick in revenue, and return to slight profitability, then hold your breath and see if you can outsmart the market by picking the right time, and price, for buying and selling Best Buy. But, if you like to invest in strong companies you expect to grow for another 5 years without having to be a market timer, then avoid Best Buy.
Quite simply, it is never a good idea to bet against a long term trend. Short term aberrations will happen, and it may look like the trend has changed. But the trend to online commerce is picking up steam, not reducing. If you want to invest in retail, you want to invest in those companies that demonstrate they can capture the customer’s revenue in the growing, online marketplace.