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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Tech Industry

THE DAY AHEAD: Amazon 4Q guessing game begins as patience wears thin

Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) has shown it can blow money with the best of them, but the fourth quarter will be time to throw Wall Street a bone. May the Amazon fourth quarter revenue guessing game begin.

The fourth quarter -- the whole justification for Amazon's heavy spending -- is here. CEO Jeff Bezos was optimistic last night about the fourth quarter holiday season and said revenue will be up substantially. Specifics? C'mon it's Amazon. The company knows sales will be big, but not by how much.



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So Wall Street will be guessing. Going into the company's third quarter earnings report, some analysts were projecting sales in the $516 million range, a nice spike from third quarter sales of $356 million. It won't be long before that $600 million sales figure is being tossed around. Doubling year-over-year sales is no small feat -- in fact it may be impossible. But that's the expectations game. Amazon has no room for error given its penchant for ramping up expenses and losses.

Amazon has spent millions on new distribution centers, is tripling an already hefty marketing budget and sees its profit margins falling fast. And officials said Amazon is inefficient as they come at the moment and could face inventory writedowns. The operating efficiency will come in the first quarter when Amazon has time to breathe. For now it's time to please the customer.

The goal is the same as always. Become "the most efficient e-commerce growth machine," said Bezos. But that means Amazon keeps "finding new things to do" with new initiatives like its zStore rollout and toy sales. Amazon also will be rolling out a bunch of new categories too.

So the fourth quarter will be time to show the sales growth so investors can keep the faith. Amazon has no choice. If it wants investors to continue to buy into its formula of "invest now, profits later," it has to show some eye-popping sales in the fourth quarter.

It's too early to tell much about specific projections, but the company sees "strong sequential revenue growth in the fourth quarter" with a letdown in the first quarter. That fact means investors were patient all year for one big quarter -- the fourth quarter.

Why has the revenue guessing game become so important? That's all there is to go on. Amazon just keeps spending and spending. The U.S. book business will be profitable in the fourth quarter, but it's now less than 50 percent of sales.

A big sales blowout might be the only thing keeping investors hanging on. If analysts on the Amazon conference call were any indication, patience with Amazon's spending is wearing thin.

Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette analyst Jamie Kiggen kicked off a long line of questions about Amazon's expenses. Kiggen wanted some kind of metric to judge whether the spending was worth the bottom line pain.

"As we find new opportunities, we will invest in them," said Bezos.

"I'm as big a believer as anybody, but what analysts and investors are struggling with is the balance between new opportunities and ramp of spending," said Kiggen.

Morgan Stanley Internet guru Mary Meeker followed Kiggen's line of questioning. She said Amazon's business is a cash flow business and therefore should be predictable. Meeker noted that it hasn't been easy projecting anything for Amazon given its penchant to spend.

Bezos said Amazon may begin breaking out sales by segment in the first quarter. He couldn't guarantee any more guidance on new areas though.

Even Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget was in on the expense bandwagon. He wondered if analysts should just figure losses will be 25 percent of revenue for the next several quarters.

Bezos indicated that may not be a bad idea. "I hope we continue to find new things to invest in," said Bezos.

And finally, Lise Buyer, an analyst with CS First Boston, asked whether Amazon could justify its planned print/TV/radio ad campaign based on the rationale that every other .com was spending heavily on marketing.

Bezos said Amazon had to advertise heavily and use gift certificates to rise above the din.

"All you have to do is watch 'Ally McBeal,'" said Bezos. "Every commercial is a .com commercial."

Buyer then asked if Amazon's marketing binge would be limited to the fourth quarter.

"We can't promise you we won't react to market conditions," said Bezos.