Two Retail Models But Not Those Sexy Human Models

In the most recent Masters in Investing Premium podcast with John Hempton (@John_Hempton), John spoke about the difference between the retail models of Best Buy & Circuit City Plus their relevance to two Australian retailers Harvey Norman & JB HiFi.

To give you a taste of the interview, below is a blog post written by John.

Please bear in mind that this article was written in 2011, this article is for educational purposes only and is not investment advice of any kind. I do not own any stock in the following mentioned companies.

 So, please enjoy………

Friday, December 30, 2011

The forthcoming irrelevance of the Australian consumer electronics retailers

This is a post aimed squarely at my hedge fund manager readers who regularly ask me what to short in Australia. The most obvious target (in my view) is retailers – and as a taster I start with the big-box consumer electronics retailers.

Australia still has two electronics chains doing big-box consumer electronics. These are JB HiFi which is well run, has a modern format, a short history and not much balance sheet and Harvey Norman which is a little more old fashioned (like Circuit City in the 1990s it still sells fridges on prime real estate) but has a better balance sheet (reflecting its once glorious history). Harvey Norman also has a franchise model – it does not own all of its stores.

In the US the debate is whether the country can support one or zero highly profitable big box chains. Best Buy – the bears argue – is the showroom for Amazon. In Australia as I said we still have two chains – its as if Circuit City were still around. Moreover because Harvey Norman has a balance sheet it can survive quite a long time and Gerry Harvey is prone to say it is the competitor that will go out of business. But Harvey Norman really is losing share to JB Hi Fi and ultimately both will lose share to the internet.

Gerry Harvey sounds somewhat desperate these days – firstly arguing that internet shopping is a con (nobody makes any money in it) and then arguing that there should be additional taxes on it. Then he sets up an internet company in Ireland.  It looks really bad except that because of the above-mentioned balance sheet he can stay around for a while and he might even be able to liquidate and be left with something valuable at the end. (I still believe liquidating a large retailer is scary-hard.)

The JB HiFi model

JB HiFi spends a lot of money to look cheap. Have a look at their website – it is almost a parody of old-style discounting pamphlets. The stores have false plywood floors to make them look like a discounting house. They have young staff wearing casual clothes and signs that are carefully printed on a computer so that they look hand-drawn. The shop is deliberately cluttered giving it a feeling of being (very) crowded. They don’t do products that are not hip. There are no fridges, blenders, toasters but lots of pads, laptops, large screen TVs and computer games. The Apple products are given prime place not because selling them is profitable but because it makes the store look cool.

And for a long time JB HiFi really were cheap. The website flashes the slogan “cheapest prices – always”. This was a company with the virtuous cycle of looking cheap and being cheap, selling fast, having high turnover and low inventory costs (important in electronics where obsolescence is quick) and just looking like a happening place. It was also a hot stock.

But it does not ring true any more. They are not the “cheapest prices always” – far from it. They match prices on large items where people price check and they will match prices if you really push them (trade practices law in Australia makes it hard to advertise the cheapest price if you don’t have it) but I am noticing that on “convenience items” such as cables and SD cards they are pricing aggressively high. They spend money to look cheap but they aren’t any more. It is the advertising tag-line of a decaying business.

They missed earnings expectations a while ago – the stock is having a rough time. But it is still fairly richly valued (do comparisons of price to sales if you want). The immediate question is how far further will it go and will Gerry Harvey keep throwing his good balance sheet at staying in the game and give them pricing pressure. Gerry Harvey it seems wants to be the survivor.

My Christmas Observation

I purchased a camcorder at Christmas and forgot to buy an SD card. These produce a lot of data so a big (ie 32gb) card was required.

Here is the only such card at the JB Hi Fi in the major shopping mall in Bondi Junction.

You see that price right: $299. It is the 45 mb/s version.

Here is the same product via an Amazon partner store at $128.

Gerry Harvey doesn’t do better. Here is a 32 gb card at the Harvey Norman in the same shopping centre.

The product is a Sandisk “ultra” at $190. Amazon will sell you an identical product for $39.

I am trying to work out the dynamics of this with regard to the stock. My best model is the decline of Radio Shack which did this before them. Radio Shack had a business model built on squeezing very fat margins out of customers that needed something now. They had 2400 stores over America so they were close enough to anyone who needed them pronto.

And proximity was useful. Remember the days you absolutely needed that Firewire cable and were prepared to drive to the local Radio Shack (or Dick Smith in Australia) and pay $10-20 for something that would cost 50c to purchase in China? As the Onion observed we do not need so many cables any more and Radio Shack has become irrelevant. These days it survives by selling mobile phone contracts.

Well as my little SD card survey demonstrates the big-box electronics stores here have become Radioshack – albeit with a bigger footprint and the pretence of “lowest prices”. But Radioshack didn’t blow up – it just sort of drifted away. The stock was $70 in 2000 – the peak year in which everyone was connecting their computers to the net and needed all those cables. It is $9 now.

That I think is the future here too. The two stores won’t deal either one a death-blow. Gerry Harvey will continue to lose share to JB Hi Fi (who look cheaper and cooler) but he and his company are rich and they can bleed for a very long time. JB Hi Fi will continue to charge “convenience prices” to the customers hiding behind their faux-cheap facade.

And we will wake up in a decade and realize these companies are just not important – or for that matter even relevant.


Disclosure: no position in the funds. For various tax reasons we have elected to have no Australian positions


To view John blog please click here 

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