Can Priceline Make It a Triple Play?

Once upon a time, there were three e-commerce leaders, each with its own unique take on the e-tail business model.

So far this earnings season, both EBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) and Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) have stepped up to the earnings plate and delivered. If their results weren’t exactly walk-off home runs that ended debate about the viability of the sector, they were at least crowd-rousing triples that kept the home team alive.

Somewhere in the middle, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) hit a bloop single to shallow center; but that’s all right, because the portal has only lately been added to Team E-Commerce.

Now, batting cleanup, comes (Nasdaq: PCLN).

Priceline is already the comeback player of the year. The company climbed off the emergency room table just seconds before being declared dead and got right back in the game.

Can Priceline also be this year’s e-commerce MVP?

Comeback Kid

The company has an almost no-lose proposition on its hands. If it reports disappointing earnings, it can blame the post-September 11th travel falloff. That would be a tough spin, since Travelocity (Nasdaq: TVLY) and Expedia (Nasdaq: EXPE) are already in the locker room after posting profits despite hard times; but it’s as good an excuse as anyone’s ever had.

If nothing else, September 11th lowered expectations for the online travel sector as a whole. Priceline has a better chance of hitting the ball over the fence because the fence has been brought closer.

And the company is likely to deliver. They’ve been pretty mum up in Stamford, Connecticut, for most of the fourth quarter, but as we learned from Amazon, that can mean good things are coming.

Priceline has given observers some glimpses of how things are going, and most hints have been upbeat. Early in January, a company executive told an investor conference that long-range prospects for the Web remain good.

And late last year, Priceline’s press person politely slipped a report under the doors of some members of the press. The report lauded Priceline’s decision to grab a bigger share of its online mortgage division.

The Big Mo

The diversity within the Priceline family is probably what makes it most likely that the company won’t disappoint on February 4th. That, and a little thing called momentum.

There was a time when all of Priceline’s momentum was carrying it in the wrong direction. That changed — fairly rapidly, by the standards of corporate turnarounds — and while Priceline is unlikely to see its stock soar back into the stratosphere, the company has performed respectably for quite a while.

Of course, batting cleanup brings pressure. And in an uncertain economic environment, every earnings announcement has the power to change the fortunes of the entire market, as well as the psyches of investors and workers.

No Pressure

But even an unexpected dose of grim news from Priceline wouldn’t entirely dampen the e-commerce earnings picture.

Amazon not only stirred up enthusiasm with its profits, it also threw a monkey wrench into the whole e-tail equation with its free shipping offer.

EBay has made it clear that it intends to keep things interesting by constantly finding ways to walk the tightrope between making more money and keeping its “community” happy.

Therefore, Priceline can take comfort in knowing that, if nothing else, it can’t make the final out. So why not swing for the fences? Why not clear them all and put the year in the books as one in which e-commerce defied all the odds?

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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