I am a devotee of the Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham school of investing. I like to invest in companies with unbeatable competitive advantages, preferably at a discount. I used to think that the status of Netflix as pioneer, together with its excellent brand reputation and its strong head-start amounted to such an advantage. No longer.
Why the reversal? I learned a few weeks ago about Blockbuster's feature of allowing users of its Total-Access service to swap out DVDs in its brick-and-mortar stores. All of a sudden, all of that expensive real-estate and infrastructure is no longer a liability for Blockbuster - it is an enormous advantage that Netflix simply can't match. At least not for now.
I've read comments that this feature is negligible, and "misses the whole point" of the Netflix business model. I disagree. Much as I love the Netflix service, there are times when a particular movie pops into my head, or is suggested by a friend, which I would like to see right now. Netflix customers are out of luck in this scenario. The best we can hope for is to bump the movie up in our queues and wait a day or two.
Total Access customers, by contrast, have the option to pop over to the local Blockbuster and swap out a movie they've already seen for their "must see tonight" pick. While they are t! here, chances are good they'll pick up some snacks, or may! be a use d DVD or two. In a society obsessed with instant gratification, this advantage cannot be ignored. Blockbuster's management deserves a great deal of credit for this brilliant move. I was so taken by it, in fact, that the day I heard about it I sold all of my Netflix stock (for a gain of 80%, with which I am quite satisfied). Since then, the stock has bounced around, but has yet to pass the price at which I sold it.
By the way, while I sold my Netflix shares, I have not personally switched to Total Access. Blockbuster's selection is too mainstream for me - I prefer independent and foreign films, and Netflix offers a superior selection of these, at least for now. But that's hardly encouraging. The fact is that people like me represent a very small portion of the overall market. Netflix may be guaranteed enough of a loyal following to stay in business, but the ugly but plain truth is that the mainstream is where the money is made.
This is not a recommendation to invest in Blockbuster, by the way, nor is it a recommendation to go short. Both Blockbuster and Netflix will be in big trouble when download services like Amazon's Unbox gain more steam. Download services will negate both Blockbuster's instant-gratification advantage and all the benefits of the rental-by-mail model. More importantly, however, it will all but eliminate the enormous barriers to entry that Blockbuster and Netflix both profit from now. For proof, just look at Amazon's recent announcement that it will be hosting independent movies on its service. Soon anyone will be able to reach an unlimited film audience, instantly and with almost no up-front costs. The "competitive moat" around Netflix is rapidly fading away.
But I don't believe Netflix will go bankrupt, as some doom-and-gloomers suggest. It has an excellent brand, and I'm confident it will survive as a business, and adjust to market changes, most likely better than Blockbuster and others. But I can't bring myself to believe that Netflix will maintain its market-dominating position in light of technological advances and the surge in competition. It therefore looks too expensive at 33-times earnings. There are many far better opportunities out there.
NFLX/BBI 1-yr comparison chart
Disclosure: Author has no position in the above-mentioned securities