will have 15 carats of flawless
diamond on her wagging finger this
While the fashion big mouth pokes fun at mountains of Hollywood cleavage, online luxury retailer Ashford.com will enjoy a few hours in the spotlight. Exposure is the name of the game: Jewelry upstart
Mary J. Blige
and online luxury retailer
lanky limbs at the
Trouble is, it's the only attention they get lately. As far as Wall Street is concerned, online retailers are as nauseatingly last year as
Ashford.com, which sells jewelry and other accessories, went public in September 1999, just in time for the holiday season and a pinch before
, Mondera.com and Miadora.com. But despite lavish spending by customers and a dazzling target market, the luxury segment of jewelry, watches, perfume and even corporate gifts has been lumped with the slouching
. "It's a huge market, a triple-digit market of $130 billion," says
analyst Kris Koerber, who has a buy rating on Ashford.com's stock, but isn't counted among the company's bankers.
Nonetheless, Wall Street isn't in the mood for consumer e-commerce. Where it once saw business-to-consumer exponential curves, the Street now sees sagging bottom lines and droopy business propositions pushed up with marketing padding. Profitability is a pipe dream. Customer-acquisition costs nag day and night. But throw a bouncy business-to-business plan in front of them? Fuggedaboudit.
Investors left the jilted luxury online retail sector crying into its cuff links. Luxury sites caught fire just as the appetite died.
What's a down-on-its-luck sector to do?
Luxury online retailers now must soldier on in the pursuit of profitability, in the hope that the market's icy heart will melt when it stops seeing red. CEO Fred Mouawad of
-backed Mondera.com says his company needs $200 million to $250 million in sales to break into the black. Asford.com CEO Kenny Kurtzman's number is more like $300 million, a number he won't embrace until 2002.
Hitting those numbers will require substantial sales growth. Ashford.com clocked $20 million in 1999 holiday sales, while privately held BlueNile.com says it sold $10 million in diamond jewelry. Holiday cheer fueled Ashford.com's biggest stock rise to date, lifting the stock from the low teens to 20 3/8 last Nov. 29, and prompting underwriters
, along with W.H. Hambrecht, to up their sales projections for the company. For most of February and March, though, the stock has slouched between 6 and 9.
Analysts expect the retailer to bring in about $80 million in revenue for fiscal year 2001, which began in March. At the same time, analysts acknowledged that heavier marketing costs would weigh down earnings -- Ashford.com still lost $19.1 million in the quarter ended Dec. 31, 1999. The trio expects Ashford.com to lose between $1.13 and $1.38 per share in the fiscal 2000 period.
It could take two or three years for the luxury category to upgrade its earnings image. Will the Street remember its charms then?
Maybe their memories will be jogged by 18% to 20% gross margins, such as Ashford enjoys. "The luxury that luxury retailers have is healthy gross margins," says
analyst Mike May. "Margins are far wider in jewelry, beauty and leather goods than they are in books and other consumer products."
Yet while Ashford.com cuts out the costs of expensive stores, it shies away from passing along the savings to consumers in the form of lower prices, which might tick off its suppliers. CEO Kurtzman was the head of
when that company suffered through the tantrums of its bricks-and-mortar retailers. Compaq shunned direct sales to settle the conflict. At Ashford.com, Kurtzman uses the cost difference to provide free overnight shipping, while keeping his prices comparable with those of off-line retailers.
Additionally, the average buyer at Ashford.com shells out more than $500 a purchase, a number that enticed
to buy 16.6% of Ashford.com for an estimated $10 million. Ashford.com intends to offer a full range of luxury goods to make your
wallet open wide. It recently bought perfume site
, for instance. But will its low share price dampen the acquisition mood?
Mondera.com and BlueNile.com are focused exclusively on jewelry -- Mondera offers a few watches on its site only as a service to customers -- and aren't trying to compete with the big department stores. BlueNile.com appeals to men's investigative-reporting approach to jewelry buys, while Mondera.com hopes to build a Tiffany's-caliber brand in less than the 70 years such names usually take to build.
Their more modest goals might be a good thing, because Ashford.com hasn't been able to coax Wall Street out of its pouting stance. "The day we went public,
made his announcement that Internet stocks were overvalued," says Kurtzman. "In some ways it's good, because I'm not sure if other sites like Mondera.com can go public now."
Still bitchy, despite the investment climate! Investors may shun business-to-consumer stocks until they turn a profit, but that doesn't mean luxury sites will stop living. And when the Street grows cold for the once-bouncy business-to-business stocks, they'll get no sympathy.
Tish Williams' column takes at look at the people who make Silicon Valley tick. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, she doesn't own or short individual stocks, although she does own stock options in TheStreet.com. She also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. She breathlessly awaits your feedback at