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Is iRobot a Buy?

Steve Symington, The Motley Fool

iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) is up more than 15% so far in 2019 as of this writing, but that token snapshot certainly doesn't show the roller-coaster ride investors in the home-robotics specialist have endured. Shares are also down more than 31% from their all-time high set in April -- just before iRobot posted seemingly underwhelming first-quarter 2019 results.

That raises the question: Is iRobot a buy right now? Let's dig in to find out.

Man weighing gold coins on a balance scale.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Potential catalysts

For one, consider that while iRobot's latest quarterly results technically missed analysts' expectations -- revenue growth of 9.5% fell short of Wall Street's consensus for closer to 16%, while adjusted earnings of $0.78 per share easily beat estimates for $0.59 -- iRobot was more than happy with its start to the year. 

And management was quick to point out as much, noting during the subsequent earnings conference call that first-quarter sell-through was "good" and -- just as they discussed in prior calls -- sets the company up for higher growth rates starting in the second quarter. As such, it reiterated its outlook for 2019 revenue to increase 17% to 20% year over year.

Enabling that accelerated growth later this year will be a trio of new robots, starting with last month's launch of the new high-end Roomba s9+ vacuum and Braava jet m6 floor-mopping robots.

Like the older Roomba i7+, introduced late last year, the former can automatically empty its own bin for weeks at a time, but also features massively increased cleaning power -- with up 40 times the suction of iRobot's massively popular 600-series Roombas -- improved 3-D sensing capabilities for better navigation, 30% wider rubber brushes, and a new square front shape for better corner cleaning. Meanwhile, the Braava jet m6 can now mop multiple rooms and larger areas relative to older models. And both robots feature a new "Linked clean" concept enabling them to team up with one another by first vacuuming, then mopping floors without input from the user.

Then later this year, iRobot will introduce its Terra robotic lawn mower -- starting in Germany and as a beta program in the U.S. -- propelling itself into the multi-billion dollar pushmower and robotic lawn mower markets.

Man watching his iRobot Terra mower in the yard.

iRobot's new Terra mower will launch later this year. IMAGE SOURCE: IROBOT

That's not to say there won't be challenges for Terra along the way. The lawnmower market is already crowded with established autonomous competitors from big brands like Husqvarna and Honda. And even then, those brands have failed to truly gain traction on a wider scale.

But iRobot isn't going outside completely unprepared. It has decades of experience building outdoor robots for the military -- though it divested that side of the business to focus on home robotics a few years ago -- and with its older Mirra pool-cleaning and Looj gutter-clearing bots. And in this case, iRobot hopes Terra can differentiate itself with relative ease of use; iRobot has decided to shy away from the buried wire barriers used by competitors, instead creating a unique wireless beacon system to help the Terra autonomously navigate our lawns. IRobot also reportedly developed a slew of its its own proprietary safety mechanisms to avoid objects in the lawn -- even including difficult-to-detect objects like trampoline legs -- and to disable the blades if the robot is tilted or lifted while still enabling it to navigate difficult terrain.

Risks and what to watch

Of course, arguably the biggest risk to iRobot is the possibility consumers won't embrace these expensive new products. The Braava jet m6 goes for around $500, the Roomba s9+ retails for a staggering $1,300, and the yet-to-be-priced Terra could possibly go even higher. And even if consumers love them, iRobot CFO Alison Dean has warned the new robots will initially sell at lower margins "than the cost-optimized products they are replacing," which could mean a hit to profitability while iRobot hones its production efficiency.

Investors also need to keep a close eye on global trade tensions, particularly as it relates to tariffs imposed on products manufactured in China and imported into the United States. So far iRobot has been able to successfully offset the impact of those tariffs by imposing selected price increases -- and has promised to lower prices should the tariffs be lifted altogether -- but incremental tariffs from here could change the situation quickly.

To that end, the markets are likely to rejoice after U.S. President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to restart trade negotiations following a successful meeting at the G-20 summit in Japan yesterday. But there's no guarantee those negotiations will ultimately be fruitful given the mercurial relationship the two leaders maintain.

As for iRobot's upcoming second-quarter report slated for July 23, 2019, most analysts are modeling a narrow $0.03-per-share profit on significantly accelerated 18.4% growth in revenue to $267.9 million. IRobot, for its part, didn't provide specific quarterly financial guidance, but management did say they expect revenue growth in the "high teens," with gross margins facing significant pressure given a combination of new product launches, supply chain diversification initiatives, and typically high promotions surrounding Mother's Day and Father's Day.

At this stage in the nascent home-robotics industry, investors shouldn't be particularly concerned that iRobot is choosing to forsake bottom-line profitability in favor of taking market share and driving top-line growth.

If the company manages to successfully do so, it could translate to a massive pop as iRobot stock rivals its recent highs.

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Steve Symington owns shares of iRobot. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends iRobot. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.