NEW YORK - It might be a blue Christmas for Amazon (AMZN). The world's largest retailer gave a disappointing forecast for the crucial holiday quarter, and it reported a wider loss than analysts expected for the third quarter. That led to an instant sell-off, with the shares tumbling around 12 percent in after-hours trading, to $276.35.
Amazon said it had a third-quarter loss of $437 million, or a loss of 95 cents per share. That was far worse than what Wall Street was expecting. The average estimate of analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for a loss of 73 cents per share.
The online retailer posted revenue of $20.58 billion in the period, also falling short of Street forecasts. Analysts expected $20.82 billion, according to Zacks.
Thursday's financial results could end investors' already-thinning patience with Amazon's slim profit and its strategy of investing heavily in new products and services to spur revenue growth. The Thursday after-hours stock price tumble comes on top of the 22 percent decline the stock has already suffered this year.
Amazon has long focused on spending the money it makes to grow and expand into new areas. Earlier this year, it launched a smartphone, the Fire, and it has been offering a set-top video streaming device, a streaming video service and several tablets and e-book readers.
The company has also been investing in services for its loyalty program, Prime, which costs $99 a year and includes free two-day shipping on many items. It has added a grocery delivery services and music streaming for Prime members as well as offering original TV shows such as the critically acclaimed "Transparent" starring Jeffrey Tambor.
But it is increasingly clear that what investors want more than revenue growth is a solid profit.
"The market was looking for more in terms of revenue and operating income and the fourth-quarter outlook," said Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy. "It's going to be a competitive landscape for retailers this holiday season, and retailers will compete aggressively for consumers."
Amazon said it expects holiday quarter revenue of $27.3 billion and $30.3 billion, below analyst expectations of $30.86 billion. That's an increase of 7 percent to 18 percent -- slower growth than the prior-year holiday quarter when sales rose 20 percent.
The holiday period is crucial because retailers make a chunk of their annual profit, about 20 percent, during the November and December period. Overall, the National Retail Federation expects sales during the period to be up 4 percent to $617 billion.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the company was focused on making the holidays "easier and more stress free" than ever. Amazon has hired 40,000 seasonal workers and has expanded its Sunday shipping service. It now has more than 50 distribution centers in the U.S., up from 40 last year. And in July it announced it was opening eight smaller sorting centers for a total of 15 by year-end.
Speed of shipping is going to be a key for any retailer this holiday season, Hottovy said. Amazon offers free two-day shipping on many products via its Prime program. But competition is heating up: Target (TGT) said Tuesday that it would offer free shipping on all items this holiday season.
"Last year, retailers figured out price matching wasn't enough," Hottovy said. "You have to get products to consumers quickly and cheaply as well."
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