There was a time, just a few months ago, that a bricks-and-mortar retailer's Internet operations helped spur investor interest in its stocks. Remember
recent run up to 60? Investor enthusiasm, on the heels of rave reviews for its Web site, didn't hurt. Nor did it hurt
, which a few weeks ago announced a tracking stock for its dot-com.
But just look at what happened when Williams-Sonoma on Monday announced that higher-than-expected Internet costs would be a big factor in pulling down fourth-quarter profits: Its stock tumbled by 37%. And Staples, whose market value grew by $3 billion after announcing its dot-com spinoff, lost it all after disclosing that its Internet losses were bigger than expected.
They're learning what Cramer pointed out months ago in a landmark "Ten Internet Myths"
column about the Internet: It's harder, and more costly, than anybody thinks. Even
, a cataloguer that you would think would understand mail order, overestimated the Internet.
The thought was that it would help cut down on postage and paper costs as customers migrated from catalogs to the company's highly regarded Web site. Turns out many of its Web customers preferred to flip through the regular catalog while ordering via the Internet. The Internet, in other words, merely replaced the telephone. (Not what investors wanted to hear; Lands' End stock still hasn't recovered from
slide from 80 to 30 in recent months on bad earnings news, much of it related to the Internet.)
That raises the question: If Williams-Sonoma and Staples are reporting Internet-related disappointments, who's next? Will it be
, which set up its e-commerce site so that the parent company won't get hit with Internet-related losses? (Some of my sources don't think so.) What about
, which has gone hog-wild trying to sell shoes over the Internet? (I find it hard to buy shoes in a store.)
is everybody's favorite, but will its Internet operation turn into a financial botch job? Others to keep an eye on include
Bed Bath & Beyond
. A Talbots spokeswoman said she doesn't expect a problem because "having an Internet site is very cost-effective. We have a catalog business in place, so the infrastructure is already in place as well. We have customer service and fulfillment already in place, too." (Well, so did Lands' End.)
I remember wondering why
was taking so long developing its Internet strategy. Why didn't it go full blast with an online version of the entire warehouse? Based on what's happening to some other retailers, maybe the bottom line is that an idea that looked compelling really wasn't.
In the end, for many of these retailers, e-commerce will be just another (albeit efficent) way of doing business -- if nothing else cannibalizing from existing customers. Oh, and that efficiency could result in deflation. (Yep, that's what some folks think.) But that's a story for another day.
You shoulda known
: Whenever Raymond, a 69-year-old stockbroker from San Francisco calls, I know what he's going to say: He always is fond of reminding me what he predicted and how right he has been. And usually he is! But often it's difficult to explain
he believes something will happen -- at least explain it in a way I can use in this column.
Such was the case a month or two ago when he called to warn that
Procter & Gamble
was on the verge of pre-announcing lousy earnings. So, what did he know? "I knew that the consumer products part of the business wasn't growing at the rate they said it was," Raymond says.
How did he know? "I've been in the business a long time, and these kids (analysts) don't know how to get a feel for anything. The reason they continue to buy the big-caps is because they want to do what everybody else is doing. But P&G's PE was twice that of its growth rate... " -- not a good sign for Raymond.
Besides, traders were telling him that market makers in these stocks weren't willing to carry overnight positions in P&G -- another bad sign, because traders always are looking for ways to hold onto positions that they can mark up the next morning. "It was what I like to call priced for perfection," Raymond says, "and nothing's perfect."
What else is priced for perfection? "
," he says. "It's being recommended at this level by everyone. That's another clue..."
Oh, and he's also been telling me for weeks that
was about to pop upward. (It has.) "All you have to do is talk to an
salesman about who is getting all of the server business, and they'll say NCR."
Raymond, who also uses charts to aid in his trading, also likes
. One reason is because all of the Goodyear employees he talks to (like the managers of Goodyear stations) tell him they're buying the company's stock. Another is that he doesn't believe higher interest rates will hurt Goodyear.
Before you go saying that Raymond sounds like a kook, lemme tell ya: His track record, based on our years of conversations, is better than most of the supposed pros I talk to.
Herb Greenberg writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, though he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He welcomes your feedback at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Greenberg also writes a monthly column for Fortune.
Mark Martinez assisted with the reporting of this column.