down but not outEarlier this week, PetSmart’s public equity was downgraded by Deutsche Bank equity research analyst Mike Baker. Baker put a “Sell” rating on the stock, reducing his 12-month price target price from $73 to $65, or approximately 11%. In formulating his rationale, Baker cites two main drivers.  First, he views recent traffic erosion at the best in class pet retailer as being a longer term trend as opposed to a short term aberration.  Baker anticipates that slowing sales in super premium pet food coupled with limited food price inflation is going to make 2014 comps hard to deliver.  He views premium food as a key traffic driver for PetSmart. Second, Baker believes that the long term threat of ecommerce in the pet space is real.  He states that once consumers begin to recognize that free shipping is available on most pet food orders that adoption rates will increase.  Baker cites a Pethealth, Inc. survey wherein 89% of pet owners would purchase pet food online if shipping were free.

Notably, Baker’s has been negative on the stock for some time.  He’s had a “Hold” rating on the stock since February 2011 when Petsmart’s public equity was trading at $42, versus the $72 it was trading at prior to Baker’s downgrade.  As such, he missed a 71% movement in the stock over that time period.  While the arguments above are not new (maybe you actually read them here over a year ago), they are real.  However, as I have come to believe there is more to the story, and PetSmart may have more mechanisms available to combat these trends or find other growth avenues than one might expect.  Further, Baker’s call comes at a time where there is a lot of noise in the market, and therefore the significance of his observations from a timing perspective may, in fact be, overblown.  I explore each of these concepts below:

  • Holiday retail was weak all over.  First and foremost fourth quarter was tough for premises based retailers.  Fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, weather problems across the country, and political problems in Washington all conspired to make things tough on four wall retailers.  November store comps across all retailers missed guidance and online took share as a result of time compression and weather impediments.  While we are readily aware that ecommerce is growing faster than traditional retail, there is a lot of noise in the numbers; once that noise dies down we expect PetSmart to do just fine versus guidance.  Baker did not mention the bathwater when he threw out the baby.
  • Premium food rotation is slowing but growth levers in the category remain.  We were ahead of the curve in calling a category slowdown, but our experience has been that the slow of erosion has not been as steep as anticipated.  The category, which at one time was likely growing 25%, is estimated to grow at between 15% – 18% in 2014, a decent clip.  History has demonstrated that major pet specialty retailers still have levers to pull to combat this trend. PetSmart is pursing private/exclusive label concepts in the category, expansion of space dedicated to felines, and alternative form factors/niche brands as a means to combat slowing growth.  The fact they are undertaking a large consumables reset tells me they saw this coming. Further, with a rising stock market and falling unemployment what is not to say that retailers won’t seek price increases absent commodity inflation?  Nothing really. 
  • Other drivers of traffic and earnings remain.  PetSmart has done a great job over the past cycle driving traffic organically.  They have not become overly aggressive with promotions and they are not buying business by offering emerging products companies sweetheart deals or subsidizing ecommerce.  Their exclusive brands are a strong driver of customer visits and will likely be extended in both new and current categories.  Further, as they ramp up their smaller format stores it will enable them to grow faster in secondary geographies.  Couple this with slightly more aggressive promotions offset by continued share repurchases, more consumers coming into the fold as adoptions increase with the economic recovery, and innovation in the services segment and PetSmart finds itself fairly well positioned to meet expectations.  
  • Ecommerce threat is real but the competitive tension goes both ways. As you are likely to be aware, we ascribed to the theory that ecommerce is skimming customers from major pet specialty retailers. However, it is also clear that they don’t yet view the battle as worth fighting…yet.  While PetSmart has made some tangible moves to better position itself online, it has multiple tricks in its bag that independent ecommerce retailers can’t match.  For every store, PetSmart has a warehouse.  They can offer in store pick-up and returns.  They can bundle products and services.  They can get aggressive with pricing.  Until they rollout their full artillery on this front it’s hard to conclude that they can’t win back that which has been lost to date.

Net net, PetSmart is facing a number of headwinds impacting growth.  Some of their challenges are industry realities and some are self created.  However, we think the timing of these observations is being discounted.  PetSmart has major resets underway to combat these very concerns and multiple levers to pull if, as, and when needed.  The glory days may be gone but we have learned the hard way to bet heavily against the concept.  

/bryan