December 2016


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I recently had the opportunity to speak at the First Annual Pet Food Investor Forum, sponsored by Susquehanna  Financial Group. The conference was primarily geared towards public equity analysts and it was interesting to see this class of market observers collectively hone in on a few key questions that were affecting the public equities in the pet food sector. Among those questions, one that came up with the greatest frequency was the prospects for Blue Buffalo to penetrate the veterinary channel.  The array of speakers were almost universally asked to proffer our views on this issue, as it is central to the next leg of the Blue Buffalo growth story.

Since Blue Buffalo announced its intentions in the professional channel, I’ve held the belief that it was likely going to struggle to gain penetration quickly. My view was grounded on two basic premises, neither of which speaks to the quality of their solution set, of which I have no knowledge.  The first is that this channel has some very strong incumbents, who have a long history with the channel and its practitioners. The vets I have spoken to suggest that is going to be hard to overcome given how hard it is to create access. Second, was that building sales in the veterinary channel takes time and requires fundamental research that Blue Buffalo might have a hard time producing quickly, unless they had started this process long before the commercialization efforts came to light. Blue has obviously overcome significant hurdles in its history to become a near $5 billion market cap company, and there is reason to believe that if you give them a long enough time horizon that they will make inroads. I only see it as a question of magnitude.

However, last week something caused me to begin to rethink my paradigm.  Lawyers in the State of California, on behalf of California, Minnesota, Georgia, and North Carolina filed a class action lawsuit against the major players in prescription pet food (Mars, Nestle, Hills) and a subset of their primary distributors of their prescription products (Banfield, BluePearl Vet, PetSmart).  The lawsuit contends, among other things, the following, (a) there is nothing unique in the ingredient deck of prescription pet food to differentiate it from non-prescription pet food, (b) the marketing, labeling and sale of these products is deceptive, and (c) the defendants are engaged in anti-competitive practices to sell these solutions at above market prices to consumers.  If you want to read the full complaint it is here.

While I am not a lawyer or a Holiday Inn Express customer, at first blush, it would appear this case is good for Blue Buffalo’s potential franchise in the veterinary channel.  If the plaintiffs were to win their case, it would likely open up the channel to competition, giving Blue Buffalo a seat at the table. Further, if successful, the case could erode the brands of incumbent players in channel, driving faster penetration and sales of Blue Buffalo’s prescription solutions through consumer requests. That said, Blue Buffalo would also have to deal with any implications of the lawsuit given it operates in the category. However, when one digs deeper, it becomes apparent that this case is far from a done deal.

Let’s first deal with the issue as to whether prescription diets should be allowed to be labelled as such.  It is correct that prescription pet food diets do not contain controlled substances and are not manufactured under purview of the FDA. However, they are formulated for specific conditions and feeding them to an otherwise healthy pet is likely, over time, to have consequences. This is what allows the manufacturers to call them “prescription”.  This is merely a labeling issue, and if changed would not make feeding them under general conditions advisable. Further, I don’t think this makes them deceptive by definition. The marketing of these solutions generally indicates they were formulated to specifically treat a condition, not that they contain a drug. These products recommend you only feed them under the supervision of a veterinarian, in case they don’t address an issue that needs addressing or there are negative side effects of feeding them. Personally, I don’t see how labeling them prescription harms consumers and in fact the prescription protocol is, in most cases, necessary to protect pets from self-diagnosis by their owner and improper application. That all being said, these products could be labeled differently and if we adhere to a standard that the label prescription only covers controlled substances a change should be made. Whether that impacts anything beyond that does not, on the surface appear to be all that damaging.

The question of whether they are “different” is where things start to get muddy.  What defines a prescription diet is the inclusion of certain vitamins and minerals that are scientifically proven to help address a specific condition — kidney, cancer, obesity, skin, digestive, etc. The claim that these ingredients could be found in other pet food products sold without a prescription does not make them the same. The notion that pet food is pet food because all of the ingredients are generally available does not hold water in my view. If it did, pet food would only be sold in flavors, formulations and brands would not matter. I suspect lawyers from the manufactures cited in the cause of action have parsed these issues for their clients many times. We also know that brands matter in this category, Blue Buffalo’s success being a prime example of that.

Finally, I can’t speak to anti-competitive behavior, as I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, but the pricing claims make me smile.  The cost of pet food has escalated significantly post-recession (40% on average on a per pound basis since 2011 according to GfK) without much of a peep from lawyers, despite the fact that class action lawsuits in the pet category have escalated significantly.  The prices of of most Hill’s Prescription Diet dry dog food solutions in 25 lb. bags runs between $80 – $85 online, approximately $3.25/lb.  This translates to approximately $2.40 per 1,000 calories, while higher than premium kibble at $1.75 – $2.25, this is significantly less than dehydrated ($5 – $8), premium cans ($7.5 – $10), frozen raw ($10 – $11) and premium freeze dried ($11 – $18).  If there is outrage around the price, it should be kept in context. When combined with the notion that these solutions are in fact different, these claims lose some of their veracity.  For me, you would have to believe that the veterinarians are coercing their clients into buying these solutions because they have no other choice and then providing them no other means of access than to pay the price for which they are selling them. However, these solutions are available online and transactions are facilitated through prescription verification providers such as Vetsource.  This feels much like a contact lens parallel.  Are there drugs in contact lens? Ponder that.

The net of all this is that it will spur dialog about labeling of these solution sets, and consumers who have purchased these products may end up with coupon books or rebates from manufacturers, but I don’t see that as providing a meaningful recasting of the competitive landscape for the prescription pet food.  And while Blue Buffalo should be a beneficiary in the near term, it is unlikely this provides them the runway they need to rapidly penetrate the channel.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change.  While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.

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thAnxiety about ecommerce in the pet industry is not a new phenomenon.  I’ve had it for a while; it seems to come in waves.  Often the “worry” is overcome through the most limited acceptable response from a market participant, just sufficient enough to satisfy my concerns. Most recently, my unease related to the future of Chewy.com, the leading independent ecommerce player in the industry.  My fear was that should Chewy be cut off from the capital markets, it could lead to a meltdown given its operating profile and cash burn, setting the online component of the industry back for a decade, from which it may not recover.  Thankfully, for the moment, my concern has been assuaged with the announcement of the company’s most recent funding, a $75 million investment from investment management firm Blackrock.

Pet ecommerce is a bit of an enigma, wrapped inside a riddle, wrapped inside a conundrum.  The conundrum — the perceived potential for cannibalization of four wall retail revenue — started it all in my opinion (others will quibble here, but to do so would merely be a digression).  For years, Petco and PetSmart buried their head in the sand about the potential for ecommerce in the pet industry. As the dominant retailers in the category, their view was akin to “why promote it, if you don’t want it to happen?”. The number three and four retail players possess a limited to non-existent ecommerce capability set as well.  The riddle was how to get a 25 – 40 lb. bag of dog food to a customer’s door without going broke in the process.  The failures of those who tried to solve the riddle, before the needs of customers were sufficient to want it or the infrastructure was available to make it happen, only served to reinforce the conundrum.  The cost problem has been addressed in a variety of ways ranging from infrastructure partnerships, to rising consumer demand, to subscription services, to more effective cross selling of higher margin products to online consumers.  The enigma remains how much ecommerce is influencing the pet industry and the trajectory of its largest retail players.

Depending on what you believe, online sales of pet products accounts for 6% – 10% of industry sales, or $4 – $6 billion.  Again, depending on your source, online sales for pet products is growing at 12% – 20% and enjoys the highest sales penetration of any home care category in the U.S.  However, the U.S. trails both the UK and China in terms of sales penetration of pet food online.  Of these estimated sales, we now know Chewy.com makes up $880 million of them, according to a Bloomberg article where the notoriously secret company disclosed details of it’s most recent funding, a $75 million equity financing from Blackrock.

To date, Chewy.com has raised $236 million (or $248 million depending on your source) in equity from a variety of institutional investors.  There is no complete data source that can reconcile that number — mapping the who, the when, and the how much.  However, we do know investors have migrated from traditional venture capitalist (Volition Capital and Greenspring Associates) to mutual funds whose investments often are a precursor to an IPO (T. Rowe Price and Blackrock). These fund have been necessary to fuel the company’s hyper growth, which has been driven by aggressive customer acquisition and rock bottom pricing for customers.  You don’t go from $0 to $880 million in online revenue in five years without a significant war chest and a willingness to buy customers at essentially whatever cost is required

However, on the way to becoming a pet industry unicorn, Chewy.com’s world began to morph.  First, Jet.com added the category and began to compete aggressively for customers driving up acquisition costs for all the major players and driving down profits for price matching entities as Jet sought to undercut the market when possible. With Jet’s acquisition by Wal-Mart, this issue may abate over time in the name of its parent company’s earnings and ROI requirements. Second, the major physical retailers began to quietly fight back, threatening punitive action for brands that would not enforce MAP online.  While MAP would be a net positive of Chewy’s margin profile, it would likely have come at the cost of growth, a necessity to access the capital markets.  Finally, was the issue of the most recent election cycle.  As Chewy sought to fund its business it was likely going to be pushed towards foreign markets or an IPO, as a trade sale at an attractive price appears unlikely unless you view the business as a capability acquisition and not a category play. Based on the trade and capital markets forecasts for the incoming political regime, there are concerns about slowing foreign investment in U.S. companies against a back drop of changing trade policies and the potential for the IPO window to close as a result of a market contraction.  While neither of these may come to pass, the concerns are real.  This makes the most recent announcement by Chewy to be welcome news, in my opinion, for all independent pet ecommerce players.

Should the public capital markets continue to be inviting, expect an S-1 sometime in 2017 for Chewy.com.  Further, cross off another of our anticipated transitional events for the pet industry in 2016 – 2017 (see here).

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change.  While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.