Berkshire Hathaway 2019 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 11

The future outlook of Berkshire’s home-furnishing retail operations in the face of competition willing to take huge current losses as long as they can increase sales

Warren Buffett:

Jonathan?

Jonathan Brandt:

Internet-based furniture retailers, like Wayfair, appear willing to stomach large current losses acquiring customers in the hope of converting them to loyal online shoppers.

I’ve been wondering what this disruptive competition might do to our earnings from home-furnishing retail operations like Nebraska Furniture Mart.

If we have to transition to more of an online model, might we have to spend more heavily to keep shoppers without a corresponding increase in sales? The sharp decline in first-quarter earnings from home furnishings suggest, perhaps, some widening impact from intensifying competition.

Do you believe Wayfair’s customers first, profits later model is unsustainable? Or do you think our furniture earnings will likely be permanently lower than they were in the past?

Warren Buffett:

I think furnishings… the jury’s still out on that, whether the operations which have grown very rapidly in size but still are incurring losses, how they will do over time.

It is true that in the present market, partly because of some successes, like, most dramatically, Amazon, in the past, that investors are willing to look at losses as long as sales are increasing, and hope that there will be better days ahead.

We do a quite significant percentage of our sales online in the furniture operation. That might surprise you. We do the highest percentage in Omaha.

And what’s interesting is that we… I won’t give you the exact numbers, but it’s large… we do a significant dollar volume, but a very significant portion of that volume, people come to the store to pick up, so that they will order something from us online, but they don’t seem to mind at all… and they don’t have to do it… but they get a pick up at the store.

So, you know, you learn what customers like, just like people learned in fast food, you know, that people would buy a lot of food by going through a drive-in, that they don’t want to stop and go into the place. We learn about customer behavior as it unfolds.

But we did do, now… on Tuesday, we did 9.2 million of… or 9.3 million of profitable volume at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. And I think that company had paid-in capital of $2,500. And I don’t think anything’s been added since. So, it’s working so far.

The first quarter… It’s interesting… the first quarter was weak at all four of our furniture operations.

But there are certain other parts of the economy… well, just home building, generally… it’s considerably below what you would’ve expected, considering the recovery we have had from the 2008-9 period. I mean, if you look at single-family home construction, the model has shifted more to people living in apartment rentals.

I think it’s gone from 69-and-a-fraction percent. It got down to 63 percent. It’s bounced up a little bit. But people are just not building… or moving to houses as rapidly as I would have guessed they would have, based on figures prior to 2008 and ’09, and considering the recovery we’ve had, and considering the fact that money is so cheap. And that has some effect on our furniture stores.

But I think we’ve got a very good furniture operation, not only with the Nebraska Furniture Mart, but at other furniture operations. And we will see whether the models work over the long run.

But I think, you know, they have a reasonable chance. Some things people… we’re learning that people will buy some things that they’ve always gone to the mall or to a retail outlet to buy, that they will do it online. And others don’t work so well. Charlie?

Charlie Munger:

I think that we’ll do better than most furniture retailers.

Warren Buffett:

I think that’s a certainty overall, overall. But we’ve got some good operations there.

But we don’t want to become a showroom for the online operations and have people come and look around the place and then order someplace else. So, we have to have the right prices.

And we’re good at that at the Furniture Mart.

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