Best Buy's New Life After Takeover Trauma

TheStreet.com

Updated from 12:31 p.m. to include home sales data and closing share prices.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Best Buy increasingly is finding new life after the company's founder Richard Schulze ended six months of takeover negotiations without a formal offer and returned to the company's board of directors as a "chairman emeritus."

While Best Buy is unlikely to admit that a half-year of being hostage to takeover negotiations was a distraction, recent developments such as a store-in-store partnership with electronics giant Samsung and a commitment to match price competitors such as Amazon , Wal-Mart and Costco indicate the company is hard at work trying to reposition in the competitive consumer electronics market.

More importantly, after years of poor sales metrics in a stagnant economy, rising housing markets and a new crop of electronics products to take on Apple's dominance may finally give the big box behemoth the tailwind it needs to succeed in a strategy shift.

For instance, as real estate comes back to life and homeowners find the need to fill living rooms with requisite electronics such as flat screens for the first time since the housing bust, Best Buy may have a better shot at succeeding with novel store-in-store concepts than J.C. Penney , another big box retailer that's seen its earnings plummet amid tortured turnaround efforts.

A late March report from the Commerce Department showed new home sales in January and February reached the biggest two-month gain since the fall of 2008.


Best Buy's partnership with Samsung stands out as a crucial development because it draws the Richfield, Minn-based company closer to what's likely its best shot at regaining relevance to consumers, who've clearly shifted to online spending and specialized retail channels such as Apple stores.

While Samsung is nipping at the heels of Apple in the tablet and smartphone market using the Google -Android ecosystem, it also is presenting a credible threat to PC-giants such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard with its fresh line of cheaply priced Chromebooks.

In spite of Samsung's size and position, however, the company has virtually no independent retail presence in the U.S., unlike Apple and increasingly Microsoft .

Hence the partnership with Best Buy, which will open 500 Samsung store-within-a-store set-ups starting in May and ending this summer. According to Deutsche Bank analyst Mike Baker, the partnership will improve ties between Best Buy and Samsung, while improving the retailer's store space for the hot-selling smartphone, tablet, Chromebook and flat screen products Samsung offers.


The store-in-store concept differs from the one currently in place with Apple, which siphons off the company's iPhone, iPad and iMac products to their own part of Best Buy retail outlets. Samsung is putting its own workers and marketing spending to its store concept at Best Buy, whereas consumers still have to go to an Apple store for a full experience.

The distinction is crucial as just about every hardware manufacturer tries to figure out a way to beat a commodity trap that has only Apple consistently fetching premium prices and consumer loyalty.

As it rolls out Windows 8 software and a corresponding ecosystem of smartphone, tablet and PC products, Microsoft is building out branded stores in the mold of Apple. Meanwhile, BlackBerry , which recently launched its BB10 operating system and Z-10 smartphone, fought hard for relevance in the storefronts of the leading U.S. wireless carriers such as Verizon and AT&T .

HP and Dell appear noticeably behind in generating excitement for new tablet or PC products.

Best Buy's turnaround will be reliant on competitiveness of ecosystems such as Android, BB10 and Windows 8, given the concentration of the company's top vendors.

Apple, Samsung, HP, Sony and LG are Best Buy's top five vendors, according to Baker of Deutsche Bank, who calculates they account for about 45% of the company's sales. "A key to Best Buy's plan to fight back against market share losses is leveraging its vendor relationships," Baker wrote in a Thursday note to clients.

As part of a March 11 upgrade to "overweight," Piper Jaffray analyst Peter J. Keith said closer supplier relationships could drive the company's sales and gross margins, which have both been pressured in recent years.

"While many investors we speak to remain skeptical that BBY can stabilize sales and improve gross margin, ongoing announcements similar to the two today lend support to improvement in these two important metrics," wrote Keith in an April 4 client note.

The analyst gives Best Buy shares a $26 price target.

Best Buy shares gained about 16% in Thursday trading on its Samsung announcement. Shares are up over 100% for the year to date, to $25.45 in Friday trading, amid renewed optimism the company can turn around its operations.

Clearly, Best Buy will need to show its Samsung partnership can drive consumer traffic and sales, as the retail concept is rolled out nationwide.

Were the company to demonstrate success, investors might also look for similar concepts from the likes of BlackBerry and HP given a mutual need throughout the electronics industry to take on Apple.

Founder and returning board member Schulze may finally play a backseat role at Best Buy now that takeover negotiations have ended. In fact, Schulze's return and the appointment of two hand-picked directors may be overstated in their importance.


The board nominations fulfill an August standstill agreed between Schulze and Best Buy amid takeover negotiations. Meanwhile, Schulze's new emeritus title may simply be a tip that he'll keep his 20% stake in Best Buy shares. "This should mean that the founder will maintain the bulk of his ownership position for the near-term and lowers the risk that he will dispose of his stake in a disorderly fashion," Michael Lasser, a UBS analyst noted in a Mar. 25 client note.

After a half year of takeover trauma and what appeared to be distraction that slowed Best Buy's strategic realignment, Thursday's Samsung partnership indicates Best Buy, once again, has control of its turnaround plan.

For more on Best Buy's turnaround, see the company's false junk ratings foundation.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York

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