Are Beyond.com's woes a sign of things to come?

Welcome to what may well be the "year of the shakeout" for online retailers.

4 min read
Welcome to what may well be the "year of the shakeout" for online retailers.

Beyond.com today said its president and chief executive Mark Breier had resigned amid a restructuring. Besides Breier, the casualties include about 20 percent of the company's work force as it shifts its focus from the business-to-consumer markets toward the business-to-business markets.

Beyond.com is not alone. In late December, online retailer Value America, once a stock market superstar, announced a severe overhaul that is likely to cost 300 people their jobs.

"We definitely foresee a shake-up with the e-commerce space, with Value America and Beyond.com as the first and second casualties," said Alan Mak, an analyst with Argus Research.

Some analysts said they expect the tremors in the different retail sectors to become increasingly acute as traditional retailers finally get their online houses in order.

In addition, some analysts expect online companies will begin facing the same scrutiny as traditional retailers that see their stocks drop when profits are meager--as in the case of nearly all online retailers.

Indeed, even after boasting of strong showings over the holiday shopping season, the stocks of many e-commerce players have been bludgeoned as investors have grown impatient waiting for the companies to drift into the black.

Amazon.com, the leading online retailer, is trading in the $60 range, well below its 52-week high of about $113. Barnesandnoble.com is at about $14, about half of its 52-week high of nearly $27. Toy retailer eToys also is hovering around its low of about $20, down from its high of $86.

Shares in Egghead.com and Cyberian Outpost, two online retailers of computer hardware and software, also are in the dumps, barely above their 52-week lows. Egghead.com is trading around $14 compared to its high of $60, while Cyberian Outpost is floundering at about $8.50, off its high of $34.

"We believe that in most retail categories there will be only a couple of winners," said Barry Parr, the director of Internet and e-commerce at research firm International Data Corp.

Parr and other analysts agreed that each online category can support only a few players because of the economies of scale that are considered necessary to succeed in Internet commerce.

The cost of setting and maintaining a site, as well as marketing to attract new customers, can be prohibitive. Many online retailers are sinking most their income back into marketing and customer acquisition costs.

"Unless you can scale to become the No. 1 or No. 2 player, it becomes really difficult, even though the size of the market is so large," Mak said.

Most analysts consider Amazon, even with its lowered stock price, a clear winner in the market. Its technology infrastructure, its distribution capabilities, and its focus on keeping customers happy are the main reasons analysts give for its success in the future.

Net retailer eToys also is a favorite because of its focused strategy of selling books, toys and videos to the children's market.

Most analysts said they wanted to withhold the names of the companies they thought are likely to suffer most heavily until after they report their earnings in the coming weeks.

Value America and Beyond.com provide very visible examples of shifting investor sentiment because they are publicly held companies. But even private companies are feeling the effect.

"We have already seen an investment shift from the (business-to-consumer to business-to-business) space," said Jill Frankle, director of retail research at Gomez Advisors. "With all the dollars the business-to-consumer players have spent in advertising, if they don't show some positive cash flow soon, only the top players in any given space will be able to raise additional dollars."

In many ways, the online world is mimicking the traditional retail world. Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart rule the roost, while competitors such Woolworth and Caldor have been erased off the American landscape.

"Look at the ton of pet supplies sites out there," Mak said. "We can't possibly expect them all to survive. Just like in the retail world, only the top three players are likely to survive."

While some analysts don't expect traditional offline retailers, including Wal-Mart, to have much of an effect on online merchants, some expect them to accelerate the weeding out process.

"I think more traditional retailers are realizing that consumers like to shop sometimes online and sometimes offline," Frankle said. "(Bricks-and-mortar) retailers are realizing they can integrate their offline stores with their online stores."

This would allow consumers to order items online from a kiosk at the store when a product is not on the shelves. Or they could return the product that was ordered online at a physical store, saving them the time of having to package and mail it back.

"We haven't seen the true impact this could potentially have yet because retailers have only made announcements of their plans," Frankle added.