Amazon launched its first smartphone last week – the Amazon Fire phone.
It doesn’t represent any sort of leap forward in smartphone technology, according to reviews. So it probably won’t take a huge amount of market share from Apple or Samsung/Google.
Meanwhile, both Apple and Google are eating into one of Amazon’s traditional core businesses, selling music and video content.
So is Amazon’s new smartphone just a desperate bid to preserve market share? Or is it another ballsy, far-sighted move by Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos – one that will pay off in the end?
I think it’s the latter. And that’s why I’m willing to hang on to my Amazon shares – even although they trade on an eye-watering price/earnings ratio (P/E) of 500.
You might think I’m mad – but let me try to persuade you otherwise…
What’s Amazon’s new phone like?
I’ve not seen one of Amazon’s phones, but it sounds like they’re pretty similar to your average iPhone, but with two fresh add-ons.
One is a semi-3D capability that has been greeted with a ‘meh’ reaction by most reviewers. In truth, I don’t really understand how this 3D function works – I’ll have to wait and see a phone before I can do that.
The other improvement is a ‘recognition engine’ which has been received much more warmly. It’s called Firefly and is a sort of audiovisual search tool. It recognises books, various consumer goods, music, video and more. And once the phone has recognised the item, you can immediately put it in your Amazon shopping basket.
“Not only was it effective”, says Gizmodo, “it was kind of beautiful”.
So it’s pretty obvious that Amazon is launching the phone in an effort to sell more stuff. Purchasers of the phone will also get a year’s free membership of Amazon Prime, which normally costs £79.
Prime offers free delivery on many purchases, the opportunity to ‘borrow’ books to read on your Kindle, and access to a wide selection of video titles. Amazon says that Prime customers spend four times as much on Amazon as other users, and that half of Amazon’s sales are to Prime customers.
So if the Fire phone can significantly boost the number of Prime customers, it will probably prove to be a savvy move by Bezos.
Now, not everyone is convinced that the phone launch is a smart move.
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For example, Bruce Greenwald, a finance professor at Columbia Business School, made some negative comments to the Guardian. “This sequence of crazy initiatives in areas where they have no competitive advantage is about sustaining an unsustainable stock price… Amazon owns the books market, but what is happening to the value of that monopoly? They have a core business in which they are dominant, it’s going away and they are thrashing around trying to justify their $150bn market capitalisation.”
Is Greenwald right? I don’t think so.
Yes, Amazon faces growing competition. In digital content, it is competing with Apple, Google, music streaming service Spotify, and many others.
And on the physical consumer goods side – in other words, items that are delivered from its warehouses rather than online – the likes of Tesco, Argos and Walmart are all growing smarter about online retail. These chains also benefit from owning large store networks which are useful for customers who like to “click and collect.” Amazon isn’t so well placed for ‘click and collect.’
Greenwald is also right to highlight Amazon’s high valuation. However, I believe that valuation can be justified and that’s why I’m happy to hang onto my shares.
Why Amazon’s ‘crazy’ share rating is justified
No other online retailer offers such a large variety of products for sale. And Amazon is still growing its sales faster than the growth rate for overall e-commerce around the world. Last year, Amazon was the ninth-largest retailer in the world. Consultancy Kantar expects it to be the second-largest by 2018.
Amazon’s network of warehouses is also a very useful asset. It has 106 ‘fulfilment centres’ around the world, of which ten are in the UK. It is also trying to improve its ‘click and collect’ capacity by offering collection points at some London Underground stations.
Amazon also has a great record of investing for the long term. When Amazon launched Amazon Web Services in 2005, many observers doubted that the company could become a major player in this field – providing services to businesses. But, according to The Motley Fool, it now controls more than 30% of infrastructure for the ‘cloud’.
The point is, there will come a time when Amazon can afford to slow down the pace of growth and allow its profits to rise dramatically. When that happens, today’s valuation won’t look so crazy.
I’ll freely admit that Amazon is probably the highest-risk stock in my portfolio, but I’m happy to hold for further growth to come. And the Fire phone will play its part in achieving that growth.
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