Predictions of e-commerce giant Overstock.com’s impending demise were rampant in early 2020 and the company’s stock was hovering at an all-time low on March 13 of that year — the day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in the face of the rising COVID-19 threat.
But less than two years later, the company is hitting record performance numbers, its stock value is up over 2,000% and the oft-maligned furniture and home goods retailer is outperforming many of its competitors.
That all-time stock low hit just a few months after longtime Overstock executive Jonathan Johnson took over the helm as CEO following the unsavory exit of mercurial founder Patrick Byrne amid widespread fallout from Byrne’s public comments about his involvement in a “deep state” conspiracy and investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Johnson had led the company, founded in 1999, through some of its most prosperous years. But before accepting a board appointment to fill Overstock’s top spot following Byrne’s exit in August 2019, he’d spent the previous six years or so overseeing Medici Ventures, an Overstock investment subsidiary focused on blockchain technology startups.
While Overstock saw early success as one of the pioneers of online shopping, the company found itself slipping amid an evolving marketplace that became rife with aggressive competitors in the e-commerce home furnishings niche.
But Johnson was ready to steer a new course when he grabbed the wheel of the Overstock ship just ahead of pandemic shutdowns.
“In 1999, e-commerce was a nascent industry without a doubt,” Johnson said in a Deseret News interview following his appointment to CEO. “In 2019, it is a much more mature market with numerous bigger players. Overstock has found a great niche focusing on home goods ... and the business has turned around in the last quarter. There is certainly a place in the market for Overstock to grow and thrive, be profitable and generate positive cash flow.
“We see a bright future for retail.”
That bright future arrived sooner, perhaps, than Johnson had anticipated when online shopping saw an enormous boost as COVID-19 shutdowns and home isolation pushed consumers to online options.
In an interview this week, Johnson discussed the arc his company has traveled under his leadership and what the future bodes for Overstock.
And, to be sure, Byrne’s messy departure coupled with the company’s performance struggles presented Johnson with huge challenges from the outset.
“When I became CEO, Overstock was losing market share, shrinking and losing money,” Johnson said. “It was clear to me we needed to regain focus on what we do best and bring value to our shareholders.”
That began, Johnson said, with a wholesale retuning of Overstock’s approach to building its business that included replacing a 27-point initiatives plan with a four-point roadmap that focused on hitting objectives and measuring success based on key results. The move, Johnson said, provided “clarity of purpose at every level of the company.”
Johnson also dispensed with executive-level micromanagement and allowed those closest to operational issues assess and implement their own solutions. And the changes, Johnson said, reflected positively in a company culture that was changing before his eyes.
As it would turn out, the timing of Overstock’s reset and retooling was highly fortuitous as business, Johnson said, exploded soon after.
“In March 2020 when many of us were forced to isolate and work from home, business began to take off,” Johnson said.
While the habitual purchase of books, clothes, electronics and other smaller consumer goods have long been adopted by online shoppers, the furniture and home furnishings sector has seen somewhat slower to attract and retain customers.
But then it all changed.
“Over the last decade the home furnishing market has been migrating to online sales at a rate of about 1% to 2% a year,” Johnson told the Deseret News in August 2020. “At the end of 2019, about 23% of those purchases were online.
“The pandemic has accelerated that and what have been three to five years of growth has happened in months. We’re now looking at about 36% of purchases happening online.”
COVID-19 restrictions and limitations also helped fuel a doubling of sales volumes, a tripling of new customers and skyrocketing customer retention rates, Johnson said. And perhaps most significantly for the once-struggling retailer, the company has been recapturing market share.
While Overstock’s share price is down from a peak north of $121 per share last summer, the company’s stock was trading at over $70 per share at the close of regular trading on Wednesday, earning the retailer a market capitalization in excess of $3 billion.
Notably, Overstock also announced a stock buyback effort last month and is set to spend $100 million on outstanding common shares. The move is widely seen as a sign of the company’s own confidence in continued positive performance.
“Today’s announcement demonstrates our confidence in our business and our ability to deliver sustainable, profitable market share growth,” Johnson said when the buyback program was announced on Aug. 17. “This share repurchase program is aligned with our commitment to strategically deploy capital where we believe we can drive the greatest value for our shareholders and underscores the strength of our balance sheet.”
And market watchers that were once, and not that long ago, sounding the death knell for Overstock are now nearly unanimous in their support of “buy” recommendations and are roundly bullish on the company’s prospects.
None of it comes as a surprise to Johnson who is, and has been, quietly confident in his company’s ability to both level up and maintain its momentum, even as consumer habits continue to ebb and flow.
Numerous factors, aside from the pandemic, will continue to keep Overstock well positioned in its market, Johnson said. Record housing starts, continued high rates of personal savings and, perhaps most significantly, a shopping public that is newly comfortable with buying, say, an 8-foot couch online.
“Twenty years ago, people were hesitant to buy books online,” Johnson said. “A decade ago, the same could be said of purchasing clothing from an online source. But, those industries all underwent secular shifts and that’s what we’re now seeing in the furniture and home furnishings. For an increasing number of consumers, shopping at a brick-and-mortar store is being replaced by a better experience.”