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Executives

Harvey Kanter – President & Chief Executive Officer

David Binder – Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Blue Nile, Inc. (NILE) Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference February 26, 2013 5:30 PM ET

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Hi, my name is Andrew Reid. I’m Morgan Stanley’s Small Cap eCommerce Analyst and I’m joined by Harvey and David, CEO and CFO respectively of Blue Nile. We’re very excited to have them today. Thanks for coming.

Harvey Kanter

Oh great to be here, thank you.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

So I guess I’d just like to start off by asking a little bit about kind of how 2012 went kind of relative to your expectations coming in. Harvey, you joined in March of 2012 so it’s not a full year for you – so some of the things that went right, some of the things that you feel like you could improve on here in 2013.

Harvey Kanter

Sure. Well, it may not be a full year but it feels like a couple I can tell you. We covered a lot of ground. We’re actually pretty excited about our results. An interesting dichotomy if you will is we are excited about our results and yet we fell, relatively speaking, short of guidance. And so that’s the dichotomy. But we had a pretty big plan. What we’re most excited about is the sequential acceleration of our results. So for those of you who are not truly familiar, in round figures we went from 3 to 13 to 20 and accelerated into Q4.

Our core business, which is I think the most exciting element accelerated the most. We had a really meaningful result and engagement and in fact it was the highest level of success both in absolute performance and relative growth in over five years. And we also had a pretty big initiative to grow new customer accounts, and we almost met the highest level of absolute customers in the history of the company within literally a stone’s throw but it was the highest level of growth in over five years as well.

So those are really meaningful results. We ended the year at plus 15%; we ended Q4 at 21%. We had a 16% increase in net income and so they’re really meaningful results. My reference to feeling like two years is I came in in March, we reorganized a little bit some of the team. We ran pretty hard at resorting parts of our business and then we spent three months trying to get set for Q4, and Q4 as many of you know wasn’t quite the Q4 everyone expected. And so it was kind of a challenging environment to have executed all that.

And then we ended the year in a really great place. So our inventory was leveraged to last year. It actually came out measurably less liable if you will which was really exciting and we thought we were well-positioned for ’13. And we’ve authored pretty meaningful growth in that category.

Last but not least I would say that some of you have heard us talk about non-engagement, and we’re really excited about continuing to build upon the core of engagement. But in non-engagement, it didn’t work out all as we had anticipated. Having said that, we still think strategically where we’re headed, which is to grow the customer count to engage the female part of our consumer at a higher level and to grow the repeat business inherent in non-engagement in the female consumer is still strategically absolutely the right direction.

We’re evolving how we execute that at a tactical level but it’s important that you know the consistency with which we continue to move forward in terms of really driving that is the strategic, for lack of a better word directive. And I would qualify it as timing more than a change in strategy.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Thank you. So if we take a look at where you are in terms of the customer base in both the engagement and non-engagement business as well as the merchandising mix, can you talk a little bit about how you see that evolving? I guess in engagement it sounds like things are going just fine. In non-engagement, is it going to be that you want to spend more marketing dollars to market to a wider group of potential customers or is it that you want to take the current customer group you have and just merchandise to their preferences more?

Harvey Kanter

It’s actually both. It’s comical – when you ask a question you can’t answer it directly, but it’s comical because quite honestly there are initiatives underway that I can reference which specifically address really optimizing the core customer we have, that old colloquial of “The best customer is the one you have.” We believe there’s a lot more business in both addressing his needs after he gets engaged, which is our core customer as well as her, and she’s already coming to the website.

60% of our traffic is generated by a female consumer and so we believe there’s an opportunity to engage her in a more concrete way. And we’re doing a lot of things which we can certainly talk to to engage and maximize the opportunity with her in terms of revenue. The flipside of it is our acquisition pursuits, we have an expectation that we’ll have as many new customers coming to us this year through our acquisition priority as we did last year on an absolute number, and that’s pretty meaningful.

So if I could I’ll just segue a little bit. I want to talk about what we’re doing to basically optimize the current customer is two really big strategic things. One is enhancing the level of feature functionality that is critical for us as an internet player to create as much of a, for lack of a better way to say it – a brick and mortar environment as possible in a way that makes sense; so site visualization or product visualization, 3600 video, photographs of our diamonds, band matcher which is basically the ability to attach more and more bands to every engagement transaction by literally showing which bands go with which engagement rings.

Those seem rather rudimentary on one level but the fact of the matter is we’re not as advanced in all those elements as we want to be. The other one which will engage the current customer but really engage her or him where they want to be when they want to be engaged, which is begun by creating parity of our PC across all mobile environments. So we like to think we coined the term [phablet] although we know we really didn’t, but phablet is basically phone and tablet. And one of the challenges is a lot of the really robust feature functionality on the PC doesn’t translate today to the browser-based environment of the mobile.

And so a lot of what we’re doing is literally bringing those all the way through the, for lack of a better way to say it, channel agnostics and to have the same browser experience. At that point you’ll be able to build your own jewelry, advanced diamond search and a lot of elements that will then address the core customer where they want to be addressed, when they’re willing to access our business. But that will grow the core customer, the one we have today.

And then obviously as we evolve the engagement business, continue to invest in our marketing elements, we believe that we’ll continue to grow the brand of Blue Nile creating a better level of awareness for what we stand for and actually engaging a new customer. And so that’s ultimately why I said “both.”

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Okay. So if we look at what you’ve kind of just gone over, I think one of the interesting opportunities that you guys have is to make inroads into the non-engagement side of the business. I think to your point it didn’t go as well as you would have liked it in 2012 but that potentially could have been because of the fiscal cliff towards the end of the year.

How do you think about your strategy going into that because you’re obviously marketing to a different consumer who’s going to be making the purchases and so a lot of people may think that that’s going to necessitate either a brand or you going out and acquiring jewelry from name brand designers.

Harvey Kanter

You know, there’s three really big things we’re trying to accomplish. One is just plain and simple awareness. I would tell you that a perfect example, for Valentine’s Day I bought my daughter who is not our target customer, but I bought her some jewelry for Valentine’s Day and she literally asked me where I got it. And it was kind of mesmerizing that she could ask that about a jewelry store but she thought it was really great. It was for Valentine’s Day and the fact of the matter is she told me she had an experience where a lot of people said “Where did you get it?”

That in and of itself is one of our challenges, that we start with a male customer, he’s approximately 30 years old and in the engagement business. We don’t transition him through life’s great events and so that’s one of the challenges, which is after you buy that engagement ring there’s birthdays, there’s anniversaries, there’s Bar Mitzvah gifts, there’s 75-year-old mother gifts. There’s all those things that we can do and we don’t do a good enough job, so that’s one element.

The second element, what we’re trying to do is as we think about evolving the non-engagement side of our business is evolve our perspective. So some of you have heard us talk about fashion and one of the things that hindsight is 20/20, we went a little too far in fashion and we didn’t have enough data to understand when we initially went through the resorting process the degree to which we needed to evolve. And for us, non-engagement is bands, diamond jewelry and what we call “other fashion” which is gems, silver, pearls, gold, and I’m forgetting one.

That other side of the business, that “other fashion” – we went too far, and basically the customer said… Which was great learning, but basically we went too far in terms of the level of fashion in the mix. And conversely, after we went through a deeper dive of five years of data we actually understood that part of what we didn’t do was grow some of our businesses that made more sense using the data that we have historically in-house that said diamond jewelry was a bigger opportunity than we anticipated.

So when we grew fashion, non-engagement we went after things like gems. We went after diamond jewelry but our style count was not growing in diamond jewelry at the same level as the fashion side of the business; i.e., gems and things of that nature. And so hindsight 20/20, we had the customer tell us they wanted more diamond jewelry. The velocity of diamond jewelry was better, the productivity was better. The style count wasn’t as robust.

Conversely, we went after the gem side of the business – not only did some of the fashion not sell but we were over-sorted, it was not as productive as it needed to be. So we’re regrouping in that and over the course of time we expect that our non-engagement business will evolve. So again, I said before strategically we’re still pursuing the same things but tactically how we execute it is the learning we’ve had out of this year. And honestly, the Board, we feel really good about that learning because had we not learned and the business just not worked if it was more homogenized, our results, we wouldn’t have seen the ability, the roadmap to steer into the new place.

David Binder

I think it’s also interesting, if you look at the market sizes – so when we look at non-engagement, the addressable market in the United States it’s about $50 billion in total. That comprises wedding bands which we already are speaking to those customers, and wedding bands is probably $4 billion to $5 billion of that total addressable market. So it’s sizable and it’s also an audience that we’re already addressing.

Diamond jewelry is about $25 billion and that’s an audience that in part we’re already speaking to because we’re talking to a guy who’s coming to the site, who’s trying to understand the attributes about diamonds that can tell him to make a purchase. It speaks to the unique elements of our supply chain, that we’ve got deep competitive advantages. So some of the addressable market, the largest pieces of that addressable market we’re already speaking to those customers through what we’re doing on the engagement side.

The extension into some of the more fashion elements that are outside of diamond jewelry or outside of wedding bands is a great opportunity for us and we can broaden the audience we speak to, in part because it’s off of the back of the brand that we’re building in engagement and wedding bands and diamond jewelry. There’s a lot more frequency there, it’s a bigger audience but it’s something that we can grow into gradually while we’re really exploiting large opportunities within diamond jewelry and wedding bands.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Would that strategy necessitate you to really focus on you appealing again to that male demographic? Or how do you make that transition from selling the engagement ring to the guy, the fiancé, and then getting him to essentially get his wife to…

Harvey Kanter

There’s probably at least a couple different ways. One is our marketing is evolving. So personalization, lifecycle marketing – we have definitely not maximized that opportunity. So I mentioned when he’s 30 years old and buys that engagement ring, all the lifecycle events happening after that – we really haven’t maximized that. The other thing is, you asked the question do we have to address her differently – we don’t look at her as like a distinct customer that is like Blue Nile and some other business. She’s already coming to the site.

She’s buying a lot of elements that are on the site. We’re not maximizing that through all of the offer. We’ve been fairly finite. The bulldog part of our business is new customers that don’t know us as opposed to different customers, so the way you’ve characterized the question a little bit – at least our perspective is that we don’t have a different customer. We have to engage her in a different way.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Okay. And Dave, you were speaking about data and going through five years’ of data before. What sort of technology do you bring to your merchandising strategy? Or when you think about how to optimize your business, how do you use data to help make better decisions?

Dave Binder

So Blue Nile has been founded as an online retailer with very rich data analytics and tools. It really started with selling what was 20,000 or 30,000 loose diamonds – now up to 150,000 loose diamonds, and understanding how to optimize the velocity, the conversion rates; and when customers decide to buy and when they don’t so that we can optimize margins versus sales. So there’s a deep set of analytic tools that’s spread pretty deeply throughout our organization to understand what works and what doesn’t.

What’s happened over the past three or four years is we’ve extended those tools to really understand how to optimize marketing spend for customer acquisition and how to optimize the merchandising of non-engagement jewelry. And that’s something that’s been relatively new to us: adapting those tools and empowering the people who run the company to really use that analysis to figure out what is the right product and what is the right pricing.

I would say that with all of that deep, rich analytic tools at the foundation of Blue Nile we didn’t necessarily have deep merchandising capabilities. And so when we re-launched our strategy at the beginning of 2012 we in part recognized that we are a merchant, and as we broaden the products that we sell we need retailers. We need people, merchants who can use that data in a different way to broaden the assortment, and then came Harvey.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Okay. And I guess taking that one step further in terms of bringing retail experience, what’s your view in terms of trying to go out and create more partnerships, relationships like you have with Monique Lhuillier to really kind of drive brand awareness at Blue Nile?

Harvey Kanter

Yeah, Monique Lhuillier has been a really phenomenal success story. We actually hit our numbers and I joked with David, he was the one who thought we were reaching too high but we had a really good result. We were very happy with it. The interesting thing is part of what she’s done for us is she’s bringing us cache as a designer, she’s bringing us fashion orientation.

Her average price points are higher than our current price points; her margin is slightly higher than our current margins but what she’s done for us is exposed lots of further opportunity. It’s interesting – her fashion, to the extent it’s understandable, has sold better than her highest level of fashion which actually correlates well with our non-engagement history in Q4. But what she’s also done is created the ability to understand that she’s not just a bridal company.

So I was telling some of the folks earlier in the day that when she hit, the very first week she hit we sold 21 units and that doesn’t sound like a lot. But when her average price point is $8000, $9000 it’s a meaningful number. The 21 units were comprised of 13 units of bridal engagement settings and 8 units of bands, and that in and of itself is normally a one- to three-month process. But customers knew she was on the site and the minute she hit it sold.

The second element that’s really exciting about that is that bands historically don’t sell at that level of ratio for us – that’s why I referenced the fact that we believe we have a band opportunity to grow attachment rate. But what we perceive is that many women in the beginning were buying bands that basically were for jewelry, not necessarily to be a wedding band to go with your wedding ring. And so we believe the opportunity to grow fashion jewelry with Monique is relevant and we’ll actually launch some small level of fashion jewelry with Monique in the second half of this year.

But then also if you think about all those data points that I just suggested, we believe that if we can land another what we would define as cache, industry-leading really relevant designer that will augment our business… And we’re not looking to just bring brands in with nameplates because Blue Nile wants to have exclusivity just like in diamonds, with something really rich and meaningful.

But when a brand creates a fashion umbrella for us, heavily engaging with the women consumer because we know women were directing that purchase that first week, not men; and has already an orientation to jewelry we believe there’s an upside and more a brand offer. And we’re exploring that but I would tell you it’s a very slow burn. We’re not looking to just add names for the sake of names.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Okay. So do you think that as you look to, and I don’t want to say create a portfolio of brands or designers but is that going to be enough to essentially offset what you have offline, your competitors there? Because I think if you just look at, whether it be department stores or specialty retail jewelers, they are spending a whole lot more on marketing. So how do you get some sort of asymmetric leverage out of your business to compete with them?

Harvey Kanter

Yeah, I would say first and foremost we are not looking to become, no ill intent, but a portfolio of brands. We will be very selective in what we bring into the Blue Nile business, number one. Number two, what we really are looking at is, and Monique’s a perfect example – she literally was labeled as one of the top 50 most powerful women in 2011. She’s one of the top… They say she’s the 14th most well-respected designer in the world out of the top 15.

She really brings us an element that’s an adjunct to what we do, and as we look to bring in more fashion or more elements of what she does, what we’ll try to do is evolve the perspective that it’s not about literally more – it’s about the viral nature of what she does and the unique elements of what she does. So if you don’t know much about Monique, the other elements that support that is she has a special occasion dress line today. She just launched Italian shoes. She is well-known in the red carpet Oscars, “What are you wearing?” She’s one of the people that people say they’re wearing, now they’re wearing her jewelry as well as her gowns.

And there’s a viral element – she has a huge Facebook following, a Twitter following, a Pinterest following and that aligns really well to our own social media practice where we are literally the world’s leading jeweler on Pinterest and I do mean that literally. There is no jeweler larger than us on Pinterest and we are one of the world’s leading jewelers on Facebook.

And so there’s a viral element of that where we won’t push branding in terms of offline marketing programs a la Macy’s because we’re just not a general merchant. It’s really about dialog, engagement and the viral effort and what Monique brings to us is so many elements of that in a social media presence.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

So just really quickly and then we’ll go to questions in the audience, your stock price has come down since reporting Q4 earnings. And you’ve put a credit facility in place. You’ve bought back $40 million of stock in each of the past two years. Is there an opportunity here to do something in terms of a leveraged recap or something maybe even more substantial?

Dave Binder

So well our stock came up a little after our earnings release, I just wanted to clarify that. So I mean we continue to view the share repurchase as a good way to provide shareholder value. Our business is cash flow rich; we have a negative working capital model which I’m sure most people are aware of. With growth we generate significantly greater levels of cash flow than our net earnings, and so we believe deploying that cash to repurchase shares if the opportunity presents itself is still a good way to benefit our long-term shareholders.

I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily our design to then leverage that into a cap or to do anything that’s bigger or more transactional in nature. It’s really to enhance the yield if we don’t feel like we’re getting the right valuation in the market on our stock. And I think it’s a very fair thing to point out – our stock tends to be very volatile, and so if it’s in a volatile cycle where the price is relatively low given what we think the fundamental valuation is of even the engagement part of our business as a standalone we think using excess cash to buy back shares is the right thing to do for shareholders.

Question-and-Answer Session

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Let’s turn to the audience to see if you have any questions.

Analyst

In the example of Monique, if you hit it out of the park how many brands, how many names could you sign up like that over a period of time? And if I’m, let me inject an internet word I guess – are you kind of building a marketplace inside Blue Nile with these brands?

Harvey Kanter

I’m going to not really totally answer your question, but the first answer is I don’t know. We don’t have a vision that we’ll be 20 or 30 brands, we don’t have a vision that it’s only two or three. In answer to your second question is kind of a hybrid of that: we have a belief that content and being a website that is more than just a, for lack of a better way to say it, a website that hawks goods, that sells stuff we can become a really highly-engaging place to spend time.

I say this a lot but my wife is a perfect example. I reference that a lot – she sits on the couch at night, she watches TV with her tablet and what my vision, my hope for our business is we will be one of the places she just goes to for content. And so at that point if Blue Nile is such an important part of her life, whenever she thinks about jewelry she’ll come to Blue Nile. And she does Huffington Post or things of that nature where she’s just looking at what’s the buzz.

If we drive content vis-à-vis designers and it’s not just what the designer’s selling but what’s on the runway, where they’re showing, what’s relevant, what’s fashionable – that collision in a positive way of commerce and content will make the Blue Nile brand a really rich part of consumers’ lives and that’s really what we’re ultimately trying to do. And at that point, when she’s sitting on the couch with the tablet we’ll have the best avenue to convert her and really have that incredibly loyal customer.

And more designers by default doesn’t make that incredibly loyal customer. And more designers by default doesn’t make that happen. The right designers creating the right content is really the dialog we’re trying to create.

Analyst

And on that point you have some very nice jewelry in your store, and obviously they come from people who design these items very well for a big price tag. So I guess what we don’t quite understand is how many designers are you actually working with now as a total? And when you market someone like Monique, how does that change that channel that you already have in place? And where are you going with that too, because I think part of it is we don’t understand how many designers you’re working with already.

Harvey Kanter

Yeah, we actually don’t truly have an array of designers. We actually brought in, since the merchandising evolution in the organization, a Design Director. She is literally an educated Philadelphia School of Jewelry Design, and she’s an educated 45-year-old woman who’s been in the business a fairly long time. She’s in our in-house kind of design director, and that’s her title – Design Director.

Beyond Monique there is no design entre if you will to a host of designers. We work with a pretty defined set of suppliers and those suppliers have in-house design and they design exclusively for us, but they’re not cache designers. They’re just what they are – they’re in-house designers, and that is for both our jewelry business as well as our setting business. It’s a pretty narrow supplier base, so we have long-term relations with these people. But they are part of their design company and they’re designing for their broad company, and then a subset of what they design is specifically for us.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

I’ll just interject with another one here. So in 2012 you guys benefited at least in the earlier part of the year with easier comps in the year-over-year diamond price decreases. As we’re into 2013 now you guys have guidance in the market that includes kind of an estimate of a 5% to 10% increase if I remember correctly. Where does it start to get difficult to continue to grow your engagement business as diamond prices are increasing?

Dave Binder

So historically, well before 2011 which was when it became really volatile in the market, diamond prices would tend to increase 5% to 10% gradually, and there was a pretty well-managed gradual inflation in prices. That’s an environment where in the past Blue Nile has grown the engagement side of its business in the double-digit range. And so we feel like that is still a comfortable environment where the value proposition that we have resonates.

If we see heightened volatility going forward and we start to see growth in diamond prices that are materially above 10% we’ll probably get a little bit concerned that we will be in a rough period like we were in 2011. But historically speaking with moderate inflation Blue Nile is well positioned to grow.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

And so if we look at 2013, can you just maybe highlight the top three opportunities or low-hanging fruit? You mentioned band attachment-

Harvey Kanter

Yeah, I would say there’s no question the three biggest opportunities are to evolve merchandising and marketing, and that has been part of the reason I was hired and part of the reason I joined. The second one is the mobile parity – mobile parity and bringing PC functionality to the mobile-based environment and adding feature functionality across all environments is a critical technological requirement. And then the third one which we really haven’t spoken about at all but it’s international. We believe the Asia-Pacific market is a really, really meaningful market.

Some of you have seen we announced a partnership with [Sho], we have invested in a partner a year ago, [Vay] that has brick and mortar storefronts. Our President of International literally has been to Asia three times already this year – I head over next week. It’s a critical priority and we believe that the Asian market in totality will for certain be this year’s biggest international market for us and the growth is long-term the biggest opportunity we have. So those are our three big, big ideas.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

So any opportunity to chip away at those, you referenced maybe 1.7 million to 2.0 million weddings or marriages each year, to grow market share in the core engagement?

Dave Binder

Yeah, well with 2012 growth around 20% in our engagement business just in the US we’re clearly gaining share and that is the plan. We see the market as potentially growing at a moderate pace, so for us to grow significantly we’re taking share and that is the plan. We think that we’re over 4%, approaching 5% of the market in the US – it’s about a $5 billion market for people spending on engagement rings. And we’ve always felt that we should be a double-digit market share player and that’s the path that we’re on.

Harvey Kanter

A lot of reference points to mobile parity and bringing the PC feature functionality to mobile will actually materially grow the engagement side of the business. Just the fact that consumers are looking to engage in mobile environments and we have rich feature functionality on the PC that can’t always be accessed in the mobile we think will really materially change engagement for us and support part of continuing to prop up that in spite of what transpires with pricing. And the tailwinds we had last year, whether we have them or not we probably won’t have them at the same level, but there’s other pretty linear data points that should prop up and continue to drive the engagement side of the business.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Okay. As you continue to grow in the non-engagement side, do you believe that that’s going to become much more capital intensive and is that going to have an effect on your free cash flow?

Dave Binder

So I mean we do take on inventory primarily for the sale of non-engagement products. The design of our terms and our cash flow should yield neutral or negative working capital. If we can turn products four times a year our terms are such that we would be in a negative working capital position. Over time, it would be even better if we can figure out more of a consignment model. So we can strive for negative working capital in non-engagement with good execution but with risk, and if we can get to a consignment model it’s with much less or no risk.

Harvey Kanter

One of the interesting data points, and in absolute dollar volume it’s meaningful in millions but it’s not meaningful in tens of millions – but if you look at our website today we have the Red Carpet Selection and that was actually offered specifically around the Oscars. But in Q4 we tripled what we call our extraordinary business and it’s exclusively consignment. It’s much more upper-end price points - $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 price points or more but it’s what David alluded to in terms of trying to transition a bigger piece of our business to consignment.

In the lower price points it’s harder to get the jewelry manufacturers to put consignment for $100 items so we don’t have a vision for that, but as we continue to migrate our business the ability to move that model more and more into jewelry is a really rich component of the model that would work well financially.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

And so is the consignment model just pure margin after the marketing you put behind it?

Dave Binder

Pretty much. We don’t own the inventory.

Andrew Reid – Morgan Stanley

Any other questions?

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