Three Wise Stocks to Get Holiday Boost

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Spending on holiday shopping probably will decline for the second straight year, according to the National Retail Federation. That means specialty retailers and discounters will be groveling for customers, making their share prices about as attractive as a cheese log or an argyle sweater. The one sure bet is the product Americans can't live without: electronics.

The following stocks aren't typical holiday plays, but they'll gain regardless of fashion trends. In an uncertain retail environment, your safest bet is on perennial winners.

Amazon ( AMZN) is everyone's favorite stock. The Internet-retail behemoth surprised even the most-bullish analysts with its third-quarter performance. Profit rose 67% to $199 million, or 45 cents a share, as revenue grew 28% to $5.4 billion. When many tech companies are swimming in debt, Amazon has an ideal financial position, with $4 billion of cash and $116 million of debt.

I have been critical of Amazon's stock in recent months because it trades at 77 times trailing earnings and nearly 16 times book value, more expensive than its peers. And a 3.6% net margin is nothing to write home about. Yet investors keep piling into Amazon on the faintest whisper of good news. That trend is likely to continue.

Amazon's Kindle 2 electronic reader, a hand-held device that allows users to download books, magazines and newspapers, is both cutting edge and fairly priced at $259. Although the cost might deter casual readers, for the avid booklover, it's a must-have. Books sell at a significant discount when you download, so purchasing the Kindle is a value proposition for many consumers.

Amazon has been stealing market share from brick-and-mortar retailers since the recession hit. Its low shipping costs and rewards programs have attracted consumers. With unemployment topping 10% and some adjusted estimates approaching 20%, penny-pinching won't go vacationing in some winter wonderland this year. It's easier to comply with a budget when you're shopping online. Amazon's shares are up 155% this year.

The Apple ( AAPL) iPhone is a tired tale. But with sales and market share accelerating, it's still an attractive time to jump on the fruit's bandwagon. Technology-research firm Gartner ( IT) says the iPhone now represents 17% of the global smart-phone market, up from 12% in last year's third quarter. An estimated quarterly sales bump of 50% demonstrates rapid adoption.

Like Amazon, Apple is a tech darling, enjoying endless press coverage and a devoted fan-base. A sizable population of investors, including me, has avoided buying Apple because of some innate contrarian reaction. That instinct, while justified based on investment discipline, has cost us. Apple is likely to outsell expectations during the holiday season. In a feast-or-famine environment, plenty of people want an iPhone or nothing at all.

Over the past three years, Apple's revenue has grown 24% annually, on average, and profit has risen 42%. Like Amazon, the balance sheet is masterfully pruned, with $23 billion of cash and no debt. During the third quarter, Apple's operating margin increased from 18% to 22%. But return on equity, a key measure of profitability, consistently trails the industry average.

Apple trades at a premium to computer hardware peers based on trailing earnings, projected earnings, book value, sales and cash flow. So you'll have to shell out if you want a piece of the iPhone action. Its shares are justifiably priced when considering growth prospects, fiscal prudence and brand power. Apple has rallied 7% this month and has surged 111% over the past year.

Microsoft ( MSFT) enjoyed a heady run over the past month, jumping 14% as investors migrated into cheap big-caps. But its game-console business has taken a turn for the worse. Last May, the 360 became the only current-generation console to achieve 10 million unit sales in the U.S. Since this feat, it has trailed the Nintendo ( NTDOY) Wii and Sony ( SNE) PlayStation 3 in sales.

In October, research firm NPD ranked Microsoft fourth in hardware sales, behind the Wii, PS3 and Nintendo's DS handheld. The 360, which was released before PlayStation 3 and doesn't offer Blu-ray compatibility, has seen its sales taper. PlayStation 3 was the only console to post a year-over-year sales increase in October.

As always, there is opportunity in pessimism. A handful of recent game releases may spur a 360 sales rebound. Borderlands was the third best-selling game in October and the just-released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is expected to be the most-profitable game launch in history. Both are available for the 360 and PS3, but not the Wii, so they could bolster Microsoft's console sales at Nintendo's expense.

Microsoft's quarterly net income fell 18% to $3.5 billion as revenue decreased 14% to $13 billion. Microsoft's operating margin narrowed from 40% to 35%. Its balance sheet is sturdy, with $37 billion of cash and $6 billion of debt. Unlike Amazon and Apple, Microsoft is cheaper than its rivals.

-- Reported by Jake Lynch in Boston.

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