Sorry, Staples — Online Sales Improvements Aren’t Enough

by Alyssa Oursler | August 22, 2013 9:53 am

Remember that monster run Staples (SPLS[1]) had been enjoying this year?

Well, it’s starting to look more like a slow-motion dead-cat bounce.

SPLS’ 50% year-to-date gains were sliced in half yesterday morning after the office supplies retailer announced weaker-than-expected earnings for the most recent quarter. A quick recap of the numbers:

What went wrong? Well, an in-depth piece from Barron’s[2] summed it up best:

“Though the company attributed the miss, in part, to weak sales abroad — and they were dismal — Staples faces a more profound problem: It is trying to sell office supplies from storefronts to an increasingly digital world. Call it the Best Buy (BBY[3]) syndrome.

Not only have pdf files replaced binders, but when customers do want office supplies they can save money and time by going online. (AMZN[4]) prices were, on average, a whopping 26% lower than those of Staples, Office Depot (ODP[5]) and OfficeMax (OMX[6]).”

Althought, it’s not like Staples is blind to this mega-trend. The company has been busy “reinventing” itself with a focus on accelerating growth in the company’s online business — something its 10K refers to as the “Plan.” Yes, that’s with a capital “P.” A few actions taken “pursuant to the Plan” last year included trying to sell its money-losing European printing business and closing more of its physical locations.

Despite this focus, Staples still doesn’t bother to break out the raw numbers for online sales. Instead, it lumps them in with North American retail stores, and only notes that they improved 3.5% year-over-year while sprinkling in vague management comments about “aggressively driving growth.”

Plus, not only does Staples need to increase online sales to offset slipping in-store sales — both because of store closures and comparable numbers in the red — but it also has to address slipping margins. Competition in the online space is nearly endless, thanks not just to Amazon but even do-it-all names like Walmart (WMT[7]).

So the main way Staples will have to lure customers to its website is obvious (and ominous): cheaper prices … which hardly translate to heftier earnings.

The only possible bright side: The ugly drop in SPLS have bulked up its dividend yield to nearly 3.4%, and its forward P/E has shrunk to just 10.

Still, there seem to be plenty of better investment options out there than a big-box store struggling to sell more office supplies.

All in all, Staples might not actually be dead, but don’t expect much more than small and fleeting signs of life any time soon.

As of this writing, Alyssa Oursler did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow her on Twitter at @alyssaoursler[8].

  1. SPLS:
  2. in-depth piece from Barron’s:
  3. BBY:
  4. AMZN:
  5. ODP:
  6. OMX:
  7. WMT:
  8. @alyssaoursler:

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