NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
With Memorial Day around the corner, many are going online to research and plan their next trip. Now might also be a good time to look at one company that could stand to benefit as eager consumers rush to book flights and hotel rooms.
Priceline.com (Research) could wind up being a bargain for both vacationers and investors.
Now we know what you're thinking. Priceline? Who really wants to get stuck on a red-eye flight just to save a few bucks?
True, the Norwalk, Connecticut-based company is traditionally known for its "Name Your Own Price" auction method of purchasing airline tickets online. The good thing about this so-called "opaque" system of purchasing travel was that it was good for the wallet. The risk, however, was that you don't really know what you were going to get.
Priceline realized that not all travelers are willing to roll the dice when making travel plans. So in an effort to compete more effectively with sites like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, which allow users to choose specific flights, Priceline began selling traditional air fares last year.
And it appears that customers, and Wall Street, have taken notice. The change in strategy helped Priceline increase its gross travel bookings, or the dollar amount of tickets and reservations sold on the site, by 52 percent in 2004.
Priceline also reported a better than expected fourth-quarter profit in February and analysts are predicting a more than 50 percent gain in first quarter earnings. Priceline will report those results on Monday.
The stock is up more than 12 percent so far this year, a noteworthy gain in what's been a tough couple of months for tech stocks. It's even more impressive when you consider how poorly other online commerce companies have done in 2005. IAC/InterActive (Research), which owns Expedia, has fallen nearly 16 percent.
So is it still time to take a trip with Priceline's stock?
Never mind name your own price
Priceline recently revamped its Web site to de-emphasize the "Name Your Own Price" feature in favor of conventional comparison shopping for airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars.
Customers now have a choice between purchasing travel services in a traditional, price-disclosed manner or using the auction method, which lets customers specify what they want to pay for a ticket, but not when or what company will provide it.
Along with the Web site redesign, the company also kicked off a multi-million-dollar TV ad campaign to tout these new services. The commercials continue to feature Priceline's long-time celebrity spokesman: former "Star Trek" star William Shatner. Priceline will spend at least $33 million on marketing this year, according to Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Boyd.
That's a hefty sum for a company of Priceline's size: it's expected to generate about $1 billion in sales this year. But stepping up its promotional efforts is a bold bet that could pay off handsomely.
"What Priceline has done is taken its foundation and the strength of its brand and extended it. Our research indicates that this strategy has been successful in building the overall Priceline business,"
said Dan Hess, senior vice president of comScore Networks, a firm that tracks online usage trends.
The competition takes off
The addition of more traditional travel services could help Priceline attract a new base of customers. But it also puts Priceline in direct competition with other popular on-line travel agencies like Expedia and Sabre Holdings Corp.'s (Research) Travelocity.
And even though the company reported strong increases in profits in the fourth quarter of last year, some analysts think fierce competition from larger online travel sites could spell trouble for the company in the long run.
Priceline will also face more competition from desperate airlines. Given the increasing financial difficulties for many companies in that industry, several airlines have stepped up their efforts to get consumers to book flights directly through their own sites as opposed to through middlemen like Priceline.
And other Web giants such as AOL, which like CNN/Money, is owned by Time Warner (Research), and Yahoo! (Research) are also trying to get a piece of the online travel pie. AOL launched a beta version of an online travel search service in March while Yahoo! acquired travel search engine FareChase last year.
Travel is single largest category of e-commerce, accounting for about 43 percent of all online spending, according to Hess. It's also rapidly growing. Revenues increased 26 percent last year. But Hess warned that "an industry can only maintain growth rates like that for so long" since "competition is becoming more fierce."
Despite some concerns about the overall state of the industry, Priceline's new strategy has won it fans on Wall Street.
"Priceline continues to benefit from its successful transition to a diversified online travel provider versus a niche opaque business," wrote Anthony Noto, an analyst for Goldman Sachs, in a recent research report.
In the first quarter, analysts expect earnings, excluding one-time charges, of 20 cents a share, according to Thomson/First Call, up more than 50 percent from a pro-forma profit of 13 cents a share in the same period a year ago.
But is this growth already reflected in the stock price? Priceline trades at 22 times 2005 earnings estimates, a steep premium to Cendant (Research), which owns Orbitz and CheapTickets, and Sabre Holdings, which owns Travelocity.
In addition, the stock has enjoyed some nice pops during the past few months due to takeover rumors. Priceline.com is the only major pure play left in an industry that's rapidly consolidating but there's no guarantee that the company will be acquired. So investors need to be wary of speculation.
However, Priceline's stock actually looks attractive when you consider that its projected annual earnings growth rate for the next few years is much higher than Cendant and Sabre. In addition, Goldman's Noto points out that Priceline's stock trades at a discount to several other rapidly growing e-commerce companies, such as Amazon.com (Research) and eBay (Research).
So it seems that Priceline's shares, as well as its fares, could be a good deal.
For the latest on the summer travel spike, click here.