Largely buried among the more obvious holiday investment plays such as (AMZN) - Get Report and American Greetings (AM) - Get Report is a smaller, innocuously named e-tailer that could make a fresh addition to a stock portfolio.

The company, Provide Commerce( PRVD), has developed a loyal following on the sell side, with only one out of seven analysts rating the company anything lower than a buy.

The attraction of Provide -- an online purveyor of flowers -- stems from its unique "direct from the fields" distribution model that has led some to call the company the Dell of the flower business.

Despite a big run in its stock price -- it's more than doubled from its $15 IPO price nearly a year ago -- and stiff competition from better-known names such as (FLWS) - Get Report and, Provide has harvested a crop of fans.

"What I like about it is its strong management team with a better mousetrap selling flowers online," said Kevin Foley, a portfolio manager with Boston-based Constitution Research & Management, which has held Provide shares since its IPO. "There is still plenty of opportunity to grow the business on a top-line basis, and there are also operational efficiencies ... that allow for continued earnings upside that can probably justify a higher price."

Provide, which operates, is growing faster than its online flower retail rivals, albeit from a smaller base. In the quarter ended in September (the slowest quarter in the flower business), Provide sales shot up 53.1% from a year earlier, compared with an 8.5% increase for's online sales and a 14% jump for's consumer sales, which include telephone and online orders.

And some of the growth seen by 1-800-Flowers is a result of customers switching to the Web from phone orders, which suffered a 6.9% drop in sales in the quarter to $37.6 million. Combined, online and phone sales for 1-800-Flowers grew only 1.5%. The company is projecting 8% to 10% revenue growth for fiscal 2005, which ends in June.

Provide is projecting that its sales in fiscal 2005, also ending in June, will grow 29% to 32%, to between $166.5 million and $169.5 million.

Excluding charges, pro forma earnings per share are expected to reach between 77 cents and 79 cents, from 42 cents last year. Analysts say Provide's pro forma earnings can grow between 35% and 40% in the next few years.

Fresher and Direct

Repeat customers accounted for a whopping 68% of revenue in the September quarter. Provide's draw: lower prices and fresher flowers than the competition, sometimes even including a note with the flowers that assures customers that the buds will open, according to analysts.

The company relies on exclusive arrangements with growers who ship directly to the consumer via


. By contrast, under the traditional florist model it typically takes between seven and 12 days for a flower to travel from the grower to the importer or distributor, to the wholesaler, to the retailer and, finally, to the consumer.

"They have cut the whole distribution chain," Foley said of Provide. And the "consumer is getting a better product."

Provide, which launched its flowers site in 1998, is applying its direct-from-the-producer model to other perishable goods, which investors view as a kind of call option on its strategy. The company launched Uptown Prime and Cherry Moon Farms sites under its gourmet food division in October. Provide also uses its platform to sell flowers for other branded Web sites, including

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia




The flower business, however, still makes up about 97% of the company's sales and investors believe that there's plenty of room for growth, given that the size of the U.S. floral market is $18 billion.

But Provide still needs to cultivate a stronger brand to compete against its rivals. FTD, which filed to go public last month, noted in a regulatory filing that its brand, dating back to 1910, enjoys 96% recognition among U.S. consumers. 1-800-Flowers, meanwhile, boasts a considerably stronger balance sheet than Provide. The $74.1 million in cash and short-term investments on 1-800-Flowers' books compares with Provide's $55.9 million in cash and marketable securities.

When he initiated coverage in October, Avondale Partners analyst Frank Gristina said one area of concern was Provide's weak presence on Internet search engines, an important factor in brand awareness.

Gristina, who raised his initial market perform rating to market outperform a month later, noted that ProFlowers was fifth on the natural-results list of


and failed to appear in the top 10 natural results of


. (Gristina could not be reached to determine whether Avondale has done banking with Provide.)

On the other hand, in his Nov. 18 note initiating coverage on Provide, ThinkEquity Partners analyst Ed Weller suggested that the main "deficiency in the story" is that good execution would attract imitators. Indeed, 1-800-Flowers is already marketing a "Colors of Christmas" bouquet that it says is selected and shipped by its prized growers.

But one hedge fund manager who is long the stock and asked not to be named said he believes that chief rivals 1-800-Flowers and FTD can't copy Provide's model because they would upset their channel partners and hurt margins. FTD, for instance, could suffer a backlash by losing florists in its network -- they pay membership and other fees which accounted for more than half of the company's overall sales last quarter.

The biggest risk to Provide, then, may be that investors have missed the stock's bloom. The stock is up 170.8% from its 52-week low of $12.78, and it's enjoyed an 82% jump in the last three months alone. The


has climbed only 14.4% in the last three months.

But only Morgan Keegan analyst Laura Champine has lowered her rating on the stock purely based on valuation -- on Sept. 29 when the stock was at $21.38 -- while other sell-side analysts continue to defend its valuation. (Her firm has done banking with Provide.)

Now, however, the stock's price has surpassed at least two analysts' 12-month price targets and is rapidly approaching the $35 median analyst price target gathered by Thomson First Call. And a comparison of Provide's stock to some peers shows that it's now trading at a premium on a P/E and PEG basis.

"Right now I think it's kind of fairly valued relative to other Internet stocks and the market in general," said Ken Smith, portfolio manager of the Munder NetNet Fund, which holds Provide shares. "I don't think it's overpriced."

Referring to the stock's summer drop into the teens, Smith added that he doesn't think "it's a bad time to be getting into the stock, but it's not like in the summer."

Provide will face tougher comps next year given this year's solid growth. But at the same time, the winter holidays are sure to drive sales. Then come Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, Provide's busiest holidays, which investors are betting will mean more good news for the budding business.