lastminute.com flotation wows market

Jump in share price leaves observers wondering how much longer Net boom will last

The second-best-known Internet brand in the UK got off to a fast start in London Tuesday morning as lastminute.com launched its long-awaited flotation.

Shares were offered at 380p, but had already risen to 517.5p before 0900 GMT. They settled to around 502p at midday and closed at 465. The site, which sells off unused inventory such as package holidays, flights and consumer products at cut-rate prices to impulse buyers, has said that 188,995 private investors had logged onto the Web site in the run-up to floatation to apply for shares.

As a result of the oversubscription, private investors who applied for shares will only receive 35 each.

Lastminute joins Freeserve (quote: FRE), auctioneer QXL.com (quote: QXL), 365 and financial Web sites Exchange Holdings and Interactive Investor International among top UK Net flotations.

Shares aren't yet trading on the London stock exchange, but are currently being traded on the so-called "grey market", being exchanged unofficially between institutional investors. This trading will determine the price the shares open at when they hit the official exchange -- and are available to private investors -- next week, on 21 March.

Two weeks ago the company said it would sell 33 million new shares, or 22 percent of the newly public company, at 190p to 230p a share. It put a £316m price tag on itself. Co-founders Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox stand to make £68m and £45m, respectively.

With its innovative business model, lastminute and its founders have become the poster children for British e-commerce. The company is the second-best-known Internet brand in the UK, after US e-commerce giant Amazon.com, according to a consultant with Durlacher.

The company sees itself as creating a new type of business unique to the Internet, pointing out that it is the first to exploit its particular niche. "We have the potential to try and build a global brand at Lastminute.com...No-one elswhere is doing exactly what we do anywhere round the world," Lane Fox told BBC radio.

Industry observers concede the company has done an admirable job of publicising itself, and praise its business model, but caution that public relations alone is only part of the job. "They're establishing a brand, and the brand is valuable," said Marc de Tracy, senior credit officer with Moodys Investor Services. "But brand is not everything. You can't build a brand through advertising or media hype alone. You have to be able to deliver on the promise." Analysts say the European Internet market bubble will probably burst at some point; in the US 75 percent of Internet stocks are trading below their initial public offering prices.

"There is likely to be a shakeout, like in the US over the last three or four months," said Durlacher consultant David Pannell. "But there may be a bit more froth in the market over here... (the Internet market here) has been steadily awakening since around November of last year."

Will Knight and ZDNet News Staff contributed to this report.

Tony Westbrook asks -- Is this the last chance for gratuitous IPO's? Go and read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

The lastminute.com flotation is causing shares to jump, but Guy Kewney knows it is all going to end in tears. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the commentary.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom and read what others have to say.

See techTrader for more technology investment news, plus quotes and research.