Amazon's 'Strong' Quarter, Weak Margins

Talk about a mixed picture from online retailer . On its surface, Amazon tells a major success story, especially in the face of an economic slowdown and worries of recession. The company meets the Street with 48 cents a share, but blows past revenue expectations, reporting $5.7 billion versus the $5.38 billion analysts anticipated.

We knew the company's sales would be strong: Amazon itself called this past holiday shopping season the best the company had ever seen.

The good news keeps humming as the company looks ahead to its first fiscal quarter and entire 2008: for the March quarter, Amazon now expects a March quarter revenue range of $3.95 billion to $4.15 billion, raising the mid-point from the $3.95 billion analysts projected. Same goes for full year: Amazon now expecting $18.75 billion to $19.75 billion when the Street was at $18.2 billion.

That's where the good news seems to fade. Doing quick math, the company's non-GAAP operating margins hit 5.8 percent, well below many on the Street who were north of 6 percent. That early pop in Amazon's shares, based on the big top-line beats, are quickly giving way to the concept that for some reason, Amazon hasn't come up with a way to transfer those hefty sales increases to the bottom line.

As Eddie Sanchez from San Francisco just wrote me: "U need to focus on how much money Amazon makes. That's why they are in business. It's called operating profits. They are awful. You could give things away for nothing and claim your sales are good!" Operating income surged 38 percent to $271 million, Eddie, not bad for a retailer. But it seems a little paltry as a percentage of revenue.

Precisely the point, and one of the key things that has always characterized Amazon, and one of the main reasons why I have always questioned the company's valuation and its price to earnings ratio. And continue to. In the seconds they give me to come up with Amazon's numbers and analysis, I look at top line, bottom line, margins, and outlook. That's about as much as I can cram into the time I have when I'm on the air. I will characterize the numbers based on consensus, whether the numbers are "good," "not so good," or simply "neutral."

At first look, Amazon's "meet and raise" quarter as I characterized them, still holds. But my difficulty with the report comes when you look past the headline numbers, do some math, and wonder when the company will come up with the kind of bottom line growth that justifies a multiple far bigger than Google's , which is infinitely more profitable, and growing far faster.

Meantime, as Amazon's shares suffer the "digestion slide" as people, like me, move past the headlines and dig into the P and L, a retailer like this raising sales estimates for the rest of 2008 seems like a pretty good indicator that the economy isn't softening. Or if it is, it isn't softening as dramatically as we thought. Consumers, according to Amazon, will still be coming back for more. The question now: will Amazon shareholders do the same with the company's stock?

Looking at the stock reaction now, it looks like some investors are looking for a refund.

Questions? Comments?