January 2010

Despite a challenging backdrop for the U.S. consumer, the pet industry continues to perform at or above expectations.  While the pet market has not proven to be “recession proof”, as touted by many, key pet verticals have demonstrated strong resistance to the macro-economic turmoil impacting the broader market. Notably, an earnings recovery, beginning in late 2008, sent equity values of core publicly traded pet companies higher.  This peer group out performed the S&P500 by ~ 16% in 2009.

While the macro outlook remains strong, a look into the performance of PetSmart, a proxy for pet retail, provides insight into the challenges facing the industry.  PetSmart’s equity value increased 44% in 2009, on the back of a strong rally (31%) in the fourth quarter.  However, a deeper look at the numbers reveals the impact the economic downturn had on the retail segment.  Notably, growth in average ticket size decelerated in 2009 and traffic volume continued to slow, despite core consumers seeking lower price alternatives and one-stop-shop solutions.  Further, a considerable amount of growth over the past two years was driven by commodity price inflation, mainly in the food category – but sales comps, excluding inflation, remained positive through 3Q09.   PetSmart’s management issued strong guidance for 4Q09; the company produced its first positive units comp since 1Q07; hardgoods comps continue to be negative, but are improving; service sales increased 8.0%, after declining 9.3% in 3Q09 — grooming outperformed training and hotels.

Throughout 2010, we encourage industry followers to keep an eye on PetSmart, as its fortunes will provide a very good proxy into the health of the industry.  In addition to keeping a keen eye on retail, here are other key trends we are tracking for 2010.

Facing the Facts

The reality is that the growth rate of the companion animal population is moderating, which will impact prospects for the industry.  That said, the future still looks bright.  The humanization of pets thesis remains strong, but growth will not be industry wide in the near term as economically challenged consumers face difficult purchasing decisions.  We expect sectors and products that tap into the core themes of value, health and wellness, and convenience to outperform the industry at large.  International opportunities will also be a source of growth for leading domestic suppliers.

Retail Landscape Continues to Evolve

In 2009, PetSmart and Petco lost market share to other big box retailers, grocery and independent pet specialty.  Wal Mart has established itself as a major force in mid-range pet retail, providing a compelling one-stop-shop solution.  Independent pet specialty continues to deliver a more attractive product mix and service solution for premium customers.  Recovery in generic foods enabled supermarkets and the natural channel to rebound. These realities are forcing changes into the PetSmart and Petco business models.   PetSmart is trying to create stronger customer bonds through adoption and services, which other channels cannot match, while Petco has launched “unleashed by Petco” to compete directly with independent pet specialty chains.  We expect further changes from Petco and PetSmart in an effort to protect share.

Healthcare in Focus

Pet health and wellness remains top of mind for pet owners due to the rising cost of care for pets.  Consumers continue to seek product solutions that deliver perceived health benefits to their companion animals.  Additionally, they are proactively trying to control health care costs by purchasing pet insurance products, products that may mitigate or delay large health related expenditures, and trading down to generics for pet prescriptions.  End of life care has become particularly challenging in light of current economic realities

Transaction Environment Transition

Over the past two years, the industry has seen capital inflows, primarily in the form of growth equity.  While the pet industry remains a key target for consumer-oriented equity funds, the transaction landscape is likely to be characterized by a greater M&A orientation.  Henry Schein Animal Health/Butler Animal Health,  Pet Valu/Roark Capital, International Absorbents/Kinderhook Industries, and the pending sale of Pets at Home (UK) are recent examples of what we see as an emerging trend.  We anticipate strategics will begin to use their balance sheets to purchase growth.  Lacking access to cheap debt, private equity buyers will be at a disadvantage.

As always, our full industry update is available upon request.


I’m very passionate about food and local agriculture.   As such, I was very pleased to be part of the article below written by Seattle Times reporter, Melissa Allison.


Full Circle Farm expands grocery home-delivery service area

Full Circle becomes part of a still-evolving market divided between the very large (Safeway.com and Amazon Fresh) and the very local (New Roots Organics, Terra Organics and Nature’s Last Stand).

Andrew Stout, co-owner and founder of Full Circle Farm in Carnation, shows off one of the prepared deliveries. Stout has an office inside this red barn.


Andrew Stout, co-owner and founder of Full Circle Farm in Carnation, shows off one of the prepared deliveries. Stout has an office inside this red barn.

Lemon thyme is one of the crops grown at Full Circle Farms.


Lemon thyme is one of the crops grown at Full Circle Farms.

Freshly out-of-the-ground parsnips at Full Circle Farm in Carnation.


Freshly out-of-the-ground parsnips at Full Circle Farm in Carnation.

Full Circle Farm is not the only organic farm within an hour of Seattle that sells directly to consumers, but it is among the first to bring boxes of its own produce — along with bread and tea and chocolate — directly to their doorsteps.

A few months ago, Full Circle in Carnation began offering a home-delivery option to its 8,000 members, who for years have picked up their weekly boxes of food at the farm or at centralized locations such as schools, churches and offices.

“We’re typically 24 to 36 hours from harvest to delivery on most of our products, so you get a fresher-tasting experience,” said Andrew Stout, a landscaper from Minnesota who started the farm with his wife, Wendy Munroe, in 1996. Their business partner went on to found Nature’s Last Stand, another Carnation farm that offers home delivery.

“We looked at food as the perfect intersection of being able to take care of both people and the environment,” Stout said. “Plus, the challenge of it and the romance of it, and the opportunity to be involved with something that had a noble sense to it.”

By moving into home delivery, Full Circle becomes part of a still-evolving market divided between the very large (Safeway.com and Amazon Fresh) and the very local (New Roots Organics, Terra Organics and Nature’s Last Stand). One player, Spud of Vancouver, B.C., has bridged the gap by acquiring lots of smaller companies, including Seattle’s Pioneer Organics.

The smaller delivery services tend to offer organic, mostly local food, a market whose growth is self-limiting.

“You can only grow so much and move so far before you’re losing the authentic aspect of your business model,” said Bryan Jaffe, senior vice president of Cascadia Capital, a financial advisory firm in Seattle that has evaluated the industry but does not currently have clients in it.

Staying small is a relative term. Locally oriented services will not reach the proportions of Webvan, a multicity grocery-delivery business that burned through $830 million in five years before filing for bankruptcy in 2001.

But Jaffe estimates that Full Circle’s sales could reach $100 million a year in King County alone. Last year, the farm’s sales topped $10 million.

“We like to say we didn’t hit our projections last year. We just grew by 33 percent,” Stout said.

He and Munroe started Full Circle on five acres of rented land near Mount Si. Now they farm 400 acres and employ 125 people.

“Every time we’ve been presented with an opportunity to grow more food, we’ve said yes,” Stout said. “It’s not that we want to get bigger, but there’s opportunity and we feel like we need to fill it.”

The farm has been profitable for the past seven or eight years, he said.

Adding home delivery has meant hiring a couple extra truck drivers to run at night, so that deliveries are on customers’ doorsteps by 6 a.m. During the day, the trucks deliver Full Circle produce to restaurants, farmers markets, traditional pickup locations and retailers like PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods.

Full Circle also sells produce from more than a dozen other farms to round out its offerings, along with other grocery items, including coffee from Grounds for Change, hot cereal from Bluebird Grain Farms and eggs from Stiebrs Farms.

Home delivery costs $4, on top of the price of groceries. A standard box, which is $30, recently contained salad mix, carrots, snap beans, greens, tomatoes, cabbage, corn, beets, pears, nectarines, melons and pluots.

Many organic home-delivery services say their prices are below grocery stores’, because their overhead is lower. Unlike traditional community-supported agricultural operations, called CSAs), most of the services allow customers to add or delete items from their orders and to start or end service at any time.

Carolyn Boyle, the owner of New Roots Organics, which has been delivering organic groceries to people’s homes in this area since 1999, stopped carrying Full Circle produce years ago, when she realized they were also competitors.

“They had drop sites in some of the areas where we were delivering,” Boyle said, adding that “there’s plenty of room for everyone.”

A decade ago, she said, her only competitor for organic home delivery was Pioneer Organics.

“I moved here from Vancouver (B.C.), and there were tons starting there,” Boyle said. Eventually many of them, like Pioneer, were bought by Spud.

Other grocery-delivery services have launched locally, including Safeway.com six years ago and a test by Amazon.com called Amazon Fresh that began in 2007 and is still limited to the Seattle area.

Smaller players include Nature’s Last Stand, which has a farm in Carnation, and Terra Organics, which is the sister company of Tahoma Farms in Orting. Some services — including Full Circle — offer products that are decidedly not local, like bananas.

“A rounded diet is essential, and there are great people doing great things across the planet,” Stout explained. He points to a mango farm in Ecuador that takes good care of its workers and invests in health and sanitary conditions in its town.

“That’s a business that needs support,” Stout said.

It is hard to isolate one value — for example, local — to the exclusion of others, he said.

“Is it better to buy a local piece of lettuce that was grown using harsh pesticides and fertilizers from a grower that has less-than-ideal work conditions, or something grown in a different region but with great intention and integrity?” he said.

And then there’s the taste factor.

“There are wonderful American wines and wonderful French wines,” Stout said. “Just because they’re from France doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink them.”

— Melissa Allison