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.

 

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