Amazon Sees No Reason to Slow Its Spending

Amazon defended its free-spending habits yesterday in a call with analysts, arguing that it continues to see new opportunities and will invest accordingly.

The comments follow a less than stellar fourth-quarter performance in which the gigantic e-commerce provider spent nearly as much money as it brought in the door — even during its busiest quarter of the year.

Profits for the quarter fell 58 percent, while annual earnings were cut nearly in half.

Some analysts were hoping that the end of the year would be a low point for margins and that Amazon would start growing in 2012 as it benefited from the steep investments made the prior year.

But that’s not part of the plan.

“We’re incredibly optimistic about the opportunity that we have, and that’s why we have invested the way we have and why we’re continuing to invest in the business,” said Amazon’s CFO Tom Szkutak in a conference call with analysts.

For clarity, Piper Jaffray analyst Charles Munster asked again: “So, your outlook in terms of investment philosophy hasn’t changed versus last quarter going forward?”

“No, no,” Szkutak said. “We are continuing to look as we always do. We learn every week, month and quarter about customer adoption. We are looking at a lot of positive things across the business in terms of adoption, specifically Kindle growth from a device standpoint and content that’s following that.”

Other categories seeing growth, he said, include clothing, consumables, consumer electronics and Amazon Web Services.

“There’s a lot of interesting opportunities that we continue to invest in. So we are pleased with the performance in Q4 and what it means going forward for us.”

Over the past year, Amazon has invested heavily in infrastructure, including 17 fulfillment centers around the globe. At the end of the year, it had 56,200 employees, up 67 percent year over year, with most of the hiring coming in operations and customer service.

It has also invested heavily in the digital content business, including the Kindle.

It’s widely assumed that Amazon is breaking even or taking a slight loss on the sale of each Kindle Fire. It’s also securing expensive partnerships with content companies across music, video and books, and giving some of that content away as part of the $80 Prime membership, which also includes free two-day shipping.

All of those are bets that Amazon is hoping will reap profits over the long term, as customers continue to consume after they purchase an e-reader or tablet or sign up for Prime.

So far, it’s too early to see how the investment is faring, especially when it comes to new categories.

“It’s very, very early,” Szkutak said, “but so far, we like what we see, so that’s why we are continuing down the path of adding more content and making Prime better. … Because we are investing a lot, we are making sure we understand it very well.”

A lot of details, like Kindle sales numbers, are still being kept under wraps, but he promised Amazon will someday share more about how it is doing.

Unfortunately, the market isn’t as patient. In after-hours trading, the stock was down almost 10 percent at one point. During the session, it ended up down, 8.7 percent, or nearly $17 , to close at $177.50 a share.

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