It's easy to fall in love with a big, high-profile stock like Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) or General Electric (NYSE: GE). Odds are good that you use a product either one or both of the companies make, and the media's constant coverage of them sure makes it easy to get comfortable as a shareholder.
These well-known names aren't necessarily the most fruitful names for investors, though. In fact, all too often they lag the performance of smaller, off-the-radar stocks that are quietly making their owners rich.
Here are five lesser-known stocks that could be much better alternatives.
1. EZCORP Inc. (Nasdaq: EZPW)
It's no big secret that pawn shops, micro lenders and check-cashing businesses saw a bump when times got tough in 2008. What investors may not realize is that the industry was growing before, during and after the recession. And, it still is.
Enter EZCORP Inc., which you may know better as EZ-Pawn or EZ-Money. From revenue of $206 million in 2003 to $315 million in 2006, to $597 million in 2009 to what's apt to be revenue of $968 million this year (which will be the 10th straight year of rising sales), it doesn't look like there's any particular economic environment that's going to crimp what's become an amazing growth trend.
2. DaVita (NYSE: DVA)
For what it's worth, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A, BRK-B) has ventured away from his normal path of industrial and service companies to own a sizable 9.3 million share stake in dialysis center operator DaVita Inc.. The Oracle of Omaha tends to steer clear of most health care opportunities, so the fact that he's interested in this one speaks volumes.
3. Collectors Universe (Nasdaq: CLCT)
You would think a tepid economy would completely put the kibosh on collectibles. Collectors Universe says otherwise. That's not to say 2008 and 2009 were easy for the company, but memorabilia-authentication and certification service was just as necessary in bad times as it was in good.
The consistent revenue isn't even the sweet part about owning Collectors Universe shares for the long haul, though. It's the dividend that the smart money is enjoying. Even when the company slipped into the red in 2008, the organization continued to crank up its payout to what's now an amazing 9.0% yield.
4. Genuine Parts Co. (NYSE: GPC)
Since 2007, the auto-parts retailing business has gone from good to great, as the recession forced car owners to maintain their older vehicles rather than trade them in for a new one. Stocks like AutoZone Inc. (NYSE: AZO) and O'Reilly Automotive Inc. (Nasdaq: ORLY) soared on an amazing degree of success. But there was one opportunity that went largely overlooked, because the stores' name and the company's name weren't one and the same -- Genuine Parts Co. You'll know it better as NAPA Auto Parts.
There's nothing particularly special about Genuine Parts Co. in terms of its valuation. The trailing price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of 16 and the forward-looking P/E of 14 are about even with the industry averages, and the yield of about 3% is just so-so. Where the company shines, however, is in its consistency. Genuine Parts Co. has been increasing its dividend faithfully since the early 1980s, and hasn't missed one yet. Even more impressive is that it could actually afford to do so every time it did.
5. Life Time Fitness (NYSE: LTM)
As is the case with several other great stocks that not enough investors consider buying, Life Time Fitness Inc. is far more recession-proof than it likely ever gets credit for. In fact, revenue is on pace for the 10th straight year of growth for this fitness center operator, from $257 million in 2003 to 2012's projected $1.07 billion. Earnings are also on track for 10 straight years of growth. Just don't look for dividends from Life Time Fitness; this is a pure-growth story, with profits expected to swell another 14% next year.
Risks to Consider: While they may be off the radar because they're small (and perhaps a little boring), that doesn't mean they're infallible. Any of these stocks can hit the same wall higher-profile companies hit, so you'll still want to keep tabs on their operations.
Action to Take --> It's tough to venture into unfamiliar waters, particularly when the media only seems interested in talking about the market's biggest names. Yet, all too often, the media's favorite stocks are also very crowded trades -- that's why those stocks tend to be so volatile. By venturing off the beaten path with one or more of these five stocks, not only do you have an edge, but you may also reel in some of your portfolio's volatility.