Sometimes, it isn't so great to be first.
As a practical matter,
was the first nationwide "big box" category-killing retailer to specialize in consumer electronics, defining a genre that came to be known as the "consumer electronics superstore."
But that was then -- 20 years ago -- and this is now. The stock is trading near its yearly low around $11.50, way off its high of $29.31. That level compares with 1996, although there have been sharp peaks and valleys since then.
So when investors see a good brand go into the tank, I say it's time to look for value. Let's see what we can find.
The search for value takes us into four areas: financial
fundamentals, operational excellence, management competence, and -- here's my favorite -- how the company is positioned and how it is doing in the marketplace.
Want more? Check out TheStreet.com TV video.Jennifer Openshaw discusses the stocks of big-box retailers.
With these topics in mind, let's examine. Since this stock has been beaten down lately, let's look at the negatives, or "cons," first:
- Marketplace position and execution. There's been plenty in the financial press about turnaround strategies and performance shortfalls due to emphasis on big-screen TVs and notebook computers. Probably so. A recent store visit reveals more.
I found the store unattractive, not as richly merchandised as competitor
and frankly, dark, dirty and poorly marked. The bland gray carpet was spotted. A surprising amount of merchandise was marked incorrectly or not marked at all. I began to think it was part of a grander strategy to force you to talk to a sales rep. And when I finally did buy a CD-cleaning kit, I had to wait several minutes for someone to show up at the register -- even though store employees outnumbered customers at the moment.
Sloppy execution and sloppy merchandising won't kill you -- until the competition shows with something better (as we saw with
. But Circuit City is in a huge competitive tug of war. Worse than that it sits in no-man's land between the well-stocked and -serviced Best Buy and price-competitive
. This is the bigger strategic problem, and poor execution makes it worse.
- Management decisions. I spent a lot of time on the last, so I'll make this short. Circuit City's plan to drop pay levels for 3,400 employees back in March was a ridiculous idea. When you're selling a commodity, employees and the service they provide is a big differentiator. It's your customer interface. To cut pay to save a few bucks sends a horrible message -- even to those who didn't take the pay cut.
- Deteriorating financial performances. Resulting from all of the above, financials, and especially income statement performance are suffering. Gross and net margins are down and poor compared to competitors. Outside of Firedog (more below), there isn't much else on the horizon to improve margins.
One must also consider the positives:
- Balance sheet strength.While the income statement isn't so great, the company does have a strong balance sheet and especially a strong cash equivalent position of some $650 million with almost no long-term debt. This leads to:
- Stock buyback program.Circuit City announced a $1.2 billion buyback -- huge for a company with a $2.6 billion market capitalization overall. They've completed some 60 million shares at $966 million -- about 30% of outstanding shares. So they're retiring shares "cheap" and executing their buyback according to plan, which is good for remaining shareholders.
- Firedog. The 2006 "Firedog" implementation is a late but strategically on-target effort to try to add some service value in line with Best Buy's "Geek Squad."
At the end of the day, it seems like Circuit City's best prospects lie in some form of takeover. It could be a
private-equity firm looking for cheap in-place assets and a hoard of cash to work with -- and extra time since they won't be in shareholders' sights.
Or it could be a larger outside player like Mexico's Carlos Slim, who bought CompUSA in 2000 and reportedly already made an offer for Circuit City in 2003. But Mr. Slim has had slim success with CompUSA, with a recent initiative to close more than half of its U.S. stores, for reasons not unrelated to Circuit City's maladies -- they sell commodity products with pretty lousy store execution that consumers can easily buy somewhere else. For my summer bargains, I think I'll
Jennifer Openshaw is author of
The Millionaire Zone
The Millionaire Zone, and
AOL's Personal Finance Editor. Visit her at