market watch | Feb 28, 2018 |
Wayfair’s losses are mounting. Is there a takeover in its future?

On the morning of February 22, as Wayfair was preparing to release its fourth-quarter earnings report, shares of the company’s stock stood just a couple of points shy of their all-time closing high, which had been set just the week before.

Traders were wagering that longstanding rumors of Wayfair soon being acquired by the likes of Amazon or Walmart were about to come to fruition.

Citi’s internet analyst, Mark May, had lent credibility to the rumors by noting in a research update to clients that “recent conversations with investors indicate that more of them believe Wayfair could be an acquisition target, either by Amazon or by a company looking to better compete with Amazon.”

Unfortunately for Wayfair shareholders, as the earnings report was released, shortly before the quarterly conference call with analysts, there was no mention of any takeover deal. Nor, for that matter, was there a mention of reducing the size of the company’s operating losses in the foreseeable future.

Disappointed traders began dumping Wayfair shares in pre-market trading. As the call wore on, the shares dropped lower and lower. By the end of the day, the shares had fallen by over 20 percent, shaving more than $1 billion from Wayfair’s market value. It was the worst one-day loss since the company went public in 2014.

Wayfair posted $1.4 billion of revenue in the final quarter of 2017, a 46 percent gain over the year prior. The company generated $4.7 billion in sales in 2017, a gain of 40 percent over the year before. Despite these strong revenue gains, the company saw an increased operating loss of $72.8 million for the quarter, well ahead of the $44 million loss in the fourth quarter of 2016.

The company has struggled with high customer acquisition costs. It spent $166 million on advertising—11.5 percent of revenue—in the final quarter of 2017 alone. It expects advertising spending to climb even further in the first quarter of 2018.

As management reviewed the numbers on the call, it was impossible to pinpoint an area where Wayfair wasn’t dramatically increasing costs. From its continuing overseas expansion to the enormous investments it is making in its logistics operations, there seems to be no end in sight to the operating losses.

Niraj Shah, Wayfair’s CEO, has often used the quarterly conference call to share with the analyst community initiatives that aren’t ready to be released to the general public. It’s one of the ways he tries to convince the investment community to give him more time to make his business model work. Several quarters ago, Shah’s hook was the soft launch of Perigold, the company’s newest brand, that sells higher-end merchandise, much of which was previously only available to the design trade.

This time, Shah wanted to talk about the design services business Wayfair is developing. “We know one of the top reasons our customers decide not to complete a purchase is because they’re not confident in their design ability and they’re simply not sure that the item will look great in their home,” said Shah on the call.

He pointed out that, in the luxury market, this confidence challenge “is solved with interior designers, but for mass-market customers, that option is often out of reach. We know through our normal combination of smart and creative use of technology and leveraging our scale and business processes, we can bring this confidence to our customer, while creating compelling designs for a room or for a whole house, sourced from the vast Wayfair selection as well as from other businesses.”

While a design services business certainly seems a natural extension of Wayfair’s operations, it is hardly a cure-all for the company’s challenges. They are well behind the curve in not already having this service ready to go. The company is rapidly burning through cash, and the stock market’s recent bout of volatility has left investors in a far less forgiving mood than in previous quarters.

If there is a takeover deal being worked on, or some strategic partnership at least, let’s hope it will be announced soon, or Wayfair shares may have further to fall.

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