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Tech Industry

Priceline narrows loss, tops estimates

Priceline.com Inc. (Nasdaq: PCLN) topped Wall Street estimates Monday with a first quarter loss of $7.3 million, or 4 cents per share, on sales of $313.8 million.

Analysts were expecting a loss of 6 cents a share, according to earnings tracking firm First Call Corp.

Priceline, an e-commerce company that allows customers to name their own prices for items such as airline tickets and groceries, said its results were boosted by better margins and an increase in new customers.

In the first quarter a year ago, Priceline reported a loss of $16.8 million, or 12 cents per share, on sales of $49.4 million. Priceline's results exclude net warrant costs, option payroll taxes, and other items. Including those costs, Priceline lost $13.5 million, or 8 cents a share, in the first quarter.

The company, based in Norwalk, Conn., said it had 830,000 repeat customers in the first quarter, up 72 percent sequentially. Meanwhile, gross margins improved to 15.6 percent, up from 11.6 percent a year ago.

Priceline.com added 1.5 million unique customers in the first quarter, bringing its total customer base to 5.3 million. Priceline's growth was led by its WebHouse grocery service, which added 300,000 additional customers in the quarter.

In a statement, Richard S. Braddock, Priceline CEO, said the company's quarter was boosted by its advertising, anchored by those quirky William Shatner ads, and partnerships with American Airlines, United Airlines and U.S. Airways. American, United and U.S. Airways all began moving tickets in volume via Priceline.

Priceline has been expanding aggressively into new businesses such as gas, mortgages and long distance. The company also recently named Heidi Miller, former chief financial officer of Citigroup, as CFO.

The company's expansion has brought on a lot of competition. Priceline competes with Travelocity.com (Nasdaq: TVLY), Expedia (Nasdaq: EXPE) and Cheap Tickets (Nasdaq: CTIX) in tickets; Autobytel.com (Nasdaq: ABTL) and Autoweb.com (Nasdaq: AWEB) in cars; and Webvan (Nasdaq: WBVN), Peapod (Nasdaq: PPOD) and Homegrocer.com (Nasdaq: HOMG) in groceries. In home finance, Priceline is partnered with LendingTree (Nasdaq: TREE), and could compete with Intuit (Nasdaq: INTU) and eLoan (Nasdaq: EELN).