Why I Love Amazon.com but Won’t Buy Its Stock

The Internet giant’s ingenious Amazon Prime service builds brand loyalty but not enough profits to justify the company’s sky-high valuation.

Operations Inside the Amazon.com Fulfillment Center On Cyber Monday

Items to be shipped are stacked at the Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. on, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. More than 131 million consumers are expected to shop Cyber Monday events, up from 129 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

You should look at your portfolio and want to throw up a little — this is how one value manager described what a true, die-hard value investor’s portfolio should look like. The two stocks I wrote about in my latest article — American Eagle and Aéropostale — have a tendency to elicit that unpleasant reflex in many investors today.

I’m not writing this article as a pitch for those stocks (though, to be clear, my firm does own them) but to reinforce the lesson I have learned from past indecisions. If you want to buy a retailer selling clothes and shoes — items that are subject to fashion and weather risks — you want to buy them when they have missed their latest trend, when their financials look ugly and when the risks have already played out. One thing I like about these apparel retailers is that teens will shop there for just a few years. If a retailer screws up with one crop of kids, they get a second chance, because there is another crop coming right along. (The JCPenney crowd is not as forgiving. See “What I Learned from the JC Penney Fiasco.”)

Also, unlike for the Best Buys and RadioShacks of the world, the Internet is not a significant threat to teen clothing retailers. Parents get sick of their kids driving them crazy at home on weekends — plus, let’s be honest, when your kids get to be teenagers, you are definitely not cool anymore. There is, however, an amicable solution: Drop the kids off at the shopping mall — a large, relatively secure enclosed space with video cameras and security personnel, with a movie theater, inexpensive fast food and a lot of retailers.

As I am writing this, I’m realizing that this is a quintessentially American phenomenon. The public transportation system is not really well developed in the U.S., and distances are large. Dropping off your kids at the mall pretty much ensures that they’ll still be there when you come back for them. And before the movie but after they have filled their bellies with French fries ... you guessed it, the kids go to Aéropostale or American Eagle. Kids go there to kill time.

Growing up in Russia, which in many respects was a lot like Europe, we walked (there were wide sidewalks along the streets) and took public transportation. These were the times before the nightly news was allowed to talk about real local crime, and my parents were not really worried about safety on the streets, though if I was really, really late coming home, my mom still called the hospitals. I don’t know if Russian parents still feel the same way about letting their kids roam the streets today.


On a separate but related topic, for the past year, since we got Amazon Prime, I’ve been hooked on shopping on Amazon.com. I have bought things there that I never thought I would. We just bought a bunk bed for the kids. I read all the positive and, most important, the negative reviews. The bed was delivered to my door, and I did not have to pay for shipping. If I had bought it at Ikea, I would have had to either pay for delivery or load and unload boxes into and out of our minivan. But what is amazing about Amazon is how easy it is to deal with them and return things that don’t work out.

A few weeks ago we bought a foam mattress. It was vacuum-sealed, so when we opened it and removed the plastic it expanded to double the size of the original packaging. However, the mattress had an unpleasant smell that had not gone away after a week of airing. So I had a mattress that I couldn’t stuff back in the original box to return. I went on Amazon’s website — I didn’t even bother calling them but hit the “chat” button. Ten minutes later my problem was solved. A service truck (not UPS or FedEx) would pick up my mattress as is, without the original packaging, and it would not cost me a dime.

My wife was not very happy with me for buying this mattress and having to return it. But I reminded her to just imagine how much money and time we’d have wasted if we’d bought at a traditional retailer — we would have had to pay for delivery (a cost we wouldn’t recoup) and then pay again for delivery back to the store.

Amazon Prime is an ingenious idea. For a bit less than $100 a year, I receive free shipping on any item — no limits or constraints. This also buys my loyalty to Amazon. (Yes, my loyalty is that cheap!) I don’t even think about checking prices with other retailers — I know that with them I won’t get free shipping (both ways), incredible selection, the reviews of other buyers, absolutely pain-free customer service and competitive prices. Also, Amazon already has my work and home addresses and my credit card information. So Amazon Prime has done something that you wouldn’t think is possible: It has created online loyalty.

This new loyalty presents me, as an investor, with an interesting dilemma: What do I do about Amazon’s stock? Answer: absolutely nothing. It is incredibly difficult to value Amazon shares. Today they trade at 90 times next year’s earnings. I can definitely see how Amazon’s sales will grow over time, but because the company is not focused on making money, I have no idea whether that bright future is already priced in or not. Investors are forgiving Amazon for not making money today because at some point it will start to. It will stop investing in new product categories, it will raise its prices, and customers will be forgiving. So they may have a workable strategy.

But here is what I have learned over the years. You don’t have to own all the great companies. You can just enjoy their products and services until they stumble. They always do. Wall Street love affairs are like Hollywood marriages; they’re not forever. Look at Apple. I have always loved their products (I have owned every single iPhone), but I waited until I could buy the stock on my own terms, when I could value it and have a margin of safety. The same applies to electric car–maker Tesla Motors. My next car will probably come from them, but I’ll wait patiently for Tesla’s stock to become reacquainted with the concept of gravity.