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Priceline.com misses estimates as sales slump

The name-your-own-price e-tailer reports earnings that fall short of Wall Street forecasts after the company experiences a decline in sales.

    Priceline.com missed analysts' estimates by a wide margin in its fourth quarter Thursday, losing $25 million, or 15 cents a share, on sales of $228.2 million. The name-your-own-price e-tailer expects, however, to reach profitability by the second quarter.

    First Call consensus pegged it for a loss of 7 cents a share on sales of $300 million.

    Priceline.com shares closed up 44, or 17 percent, to $3 ahead of the earnings report.

    The $228.2 million in sales represents a 35 percent improvement from the company's year-ago quarter, when it lost $10 million, or 6 cents a share, on sales of $169.2 million.

    Chief Financial Officer Bob Mylod told analysts during a conference call that the company expects sales to improve between 15 percent to 20 percent in the first quarter, though it will post a loss of between 5 cents and 7 cents a share.

    Mylod said sales should grow between 10 percent and 15 percent sequentially in the second quarter and that the company will reach profitability on a pro forma basis.

    "We believe we're still very much in a turnaround mode," Mylod said. "We are managing under the assumption that it will take two or maybe three quarters before we see year-over-year sales improvements.

    Priceline.com also announced that Asian conglomerates Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong made a $50 million equity investment in the company by buying 24 million shares of Priceline.com common stock at $2.10 a share.

    Earlier this quarter, Priceline.com warned that its fourth-quarter sales would decline from the $341 million it recorded in the third quarter.

    The company also announced that it cut about 11 percent of its staff and shelved plans to expand its business to include cell phones services, business-to-business sales, and life insurance.

    "Clearly we are disappointed with our financial results in the fourth quarter," Chief Executive Officer Daniel Schulman said during the conference call. "However, we're confident that we now have adequate financing to complete our turnaround."

    Gross profit margins in the quarter came in at 15.4 percent, up from 14.2 percent in the year-ago quarter.

    Mylod told analysts to expect gross profit margins of 16 percent in the first quarter and between 16 percent and 16.5 percent in the second quarter.

    Ahead of the earnings report, Jefferies analyst Michael Legg predicted the company would lose 6 cents a share on sales of $305 million.

    Goldman Sachs analyst Anthony Noto pegged it for a loss of 10 cents a share on sales of $235 million, while UBS Warburg analyst Sara Farley expected a loss of 12 cents a share.

    "When they started out, their business model was viewed very positively," Legg said. "But in time, we've learned that this model isn't as expandable as people first believed."

    Priceline.com exited the quarter with $101 million in cash and short-term investments, down from $123 million at the end of the third quarter.

    Mylod said the company expects to end the first quarter with between $120 million and $130 million in cash.

    In the quarter, the company absorbed a $66.8 million restructuring charge--$37.3 million of which was noncash.

    Last quarter, Priceline.com met analysts' reduced estimates when it posted a loss of $2 million, or 1 cent a share, on sales of $341 million.

    Priceline.com shares moved up to a 52-week high of $104.25 in March before collapsing to a low of $1.06 in December.