German Online Bookseller Challenges Amazon, BOL

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Amazon and BOL, Bertelsmann's online bookshop, may be getting a third competitor in their battle for European dominance in the Web book business -- buecher.de, a fast-moving German shop with Pan-European ambitions.


Amazon is still way out in front, but BOL has deep pockets and is in the battle for the long run. Buecher.de, which cannot match the funding of Amazon and BOL, is looking for a sprint to bring it into contention.


Buecher.de is not yet 3 years old. It went public last year and although the stock has been sliding since then, management is not worried.


"The business-to-consumer sector has had a bad image on the new market in Frankfurt," said spokeswoman Julia Hoffman. "A recent piece in Barron's saying that Amazon would run out of money next year didn't help."


But German analysts are recommending the stock as a speculative buy and point to the 17.1 million deutschmarks ($8.6 million) in sales so far this year, already higher than last year's DM 16.4 million ($8.2 million).


Losses are a little higher than analysts had expected -- DM 4.6 million -- but they blame high marketing costs. The number of buyers climbed to 600,000 in the first half of the year.


Managing Director Richard von Rheinbaben said he expected that the company would be in the black by the fourth quarter of next year. Analysts think the estimate is realistic since cash reserves are DM 50 million ($25 million).


They point out that sales are growing faster than fixed costs, a factor of having outsourced warehousing and logistics to libri.de, a wholesaler. Amazon built all its own facilities in Germany.


The cash cushion is important for Buecher.de's plans to challenge the behemoths outside the German market. The company is looking primarily at France and then at Italy. To date, it has only done business in the German-speaking countries.


France is at the top of buecher.de's agenda. It is talking to Chapitre.com, a French online bookstore that boasts 10 years' experience selling books through minitel, the French online telephone book that once put France in the lead but is now seen as holding it back.


Rheinbaben did not rule out a takeover of the French company, which, like his own, has been in business since 1997. He has set aside 2.4 million shares in buecher.de to finance such an acquisition.


To document the company's new international outlook, it is gradually changing its name to mediantis.


"The new name," Rheinbaben said, "reflects our development from an online bookseller in Germany to an international online dealer in media products and supports our growth in Europe."


The new name will include three existing brands that buecher.de owns, as well as a range of new products -- CDs, videos, music, software and magazines.


Since BOL does not publish numbers -- Bertelsmann is privately held -- buecher.de's claims that it is already running neck and neck with, if not ahead of, its rival cannot be confirmed. But sales are clearly ahead of projections.


Two other factors, analysts said, favored the company's future. First, it is cutting back on the cost of customer acquisition, which currently is DM 58 ($28). The cost is expected to dip to DM 19 in the second half of this year.


The second plus is speed. Amazon customers receive books a day later than buecher.de buyers.


Still, analysts see buecher.de as a takeover target, one BOL may very well be tempted to swallow.
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