blue dogOver the past year, we have covered, at length, the transitional phase that the pet industry now finds itself in.  We have encouraged market participants to question everything they have come to know as the “status quo” for the industry and assess the likelihood that it will continue to prevail over the next three, six, twelve months and beyond.  For those who have dismissed the potential for wholesale industry change, we have pointed to the current political environment as a proxy, where the historical standard for how business gets done has descended into a state of entropy.  While the pet industry’s state of change has not reached the point of chaos, many traditional barriers have in fact fallen and are not likely to be seen again.

And another one goes…

Yesterday, Blue Buffalo began informing customers that it has begun distributing a subset of the BLUE Life Protection Formula (LFP) to select mass and grocery retailers.  Product will begin showing up on the shelves of Target, Kroger, Meijer, and Publix in August.  The company stated, “We have decided that broadening the distribution of LFP, our entry-level natural pet food line, is the natural evolution of our go-to-market strategy.”  The company intends to focus on smaller bag sizes and more mainstream formulations in its FDM solution set.  The company’s other lines will continue to be pet specialty exclusives.  See the full letter here.

To some this will come as a surprise.  After all, the pet industry has relied on well-maintained channel boundaries wherein brands choose to focus on and remain loyal to either pet specialty or FDM as a means of garnering retailer support.  Within these buckets there are soft boundaries between independent pet specialty and major pet specialty and between mass grocery and natural grocery.   When a big brand jumps the turnstile it is a BIG DEAL.  However, in this case it appeared to be inevitable.

When Blue Buffalo went public in 2015, pet superstores accounted for approximately 70% of the company’s revenue and was growing at over 7%.  Fast forward to 2017, and pet superstores are expected to account for less than 55% of total company sales and their growth rate will contract over 6%.  This trend line is not expected to change, with further contraction contemplated going forward.  To offset the challenges within its core channel, Blue Buffalo launched other growth initiatives focused on the veterinary channel and international markets. We viewed these as simply stop-gap measures while the company waited for the right time to make its move to mass.  That time has apparently arrived.  However, it arrived in a somewhat unanticipated way.  Our assumption was that the company would partner with Walmart, but instead it chose Target and conventional grocery.  This leads us to believe that a Walmart launch will be a 2019 event.  Blue Buffalo will wait until its Target and grocery channel account sales anniversary and then launch in other mass accounts, providing them four years of baked in growth optics based on mid-year launches.  That is public company behavior hard at work.  As of this writing the stock is down ~ 2% on the news, but don’t expect it to stay that way.

Now that Blue Buffalo has made its move, the question is what is the competitive response.  Just last week Champion Petfoods and Fromm Family Foods were showered with praise from independent retailers due to their willingness to move off Chewy.com in light of its acquisition by PetSmart.  Just a week later they now are faced with a different decision as they both could undoubtedly enjoy a national roll out at PetSmart, Petco, or both if they are willing to embrace that opportunity.  Other brands that are likely to benefit include Chewy’s own American Journey, which could easily transition to an online/offline brand.  Nulo is another prime candidate given its performance in PetSmart and the emergence of its Freestyle line in independent pet specialty.  Brands like Nulo, who effectively straddle the inner channel boundaries, are likely to welcome the news of a Blue FDM launch.

From a retailer perspective, one has to believe that Blue Buffalo shelf space will decline in the near term, if only as a psychological feel-good moment.  The pet specialty channel has a strong reliance on Blue Buffalo, so it’s ability to have a meaningful response is, to a large extent, muted.  Some back of the envelope math would suggest that nearly 25% of Petco and PetSmart food sales are in Blue Buffalo products.  The likely answer will be less retailer financed marketing support, though Blue Buffalo can take up that spend through national ad campaigns.  Notably, the company intends to begin tagging commercials for its pet specialty exclusive lines with “available at your favorite pet specialty store”.  Independents may have greater perceived influence by curtailing product recommendations, but that only works if they can effectively steer potential customers into alternative brands. Many retailers have found that converting Blue Buffalo customers is harder than it looks.

Finally, we come to the leading FDM brands.  It’s natural to assume that Freshpet, Rachel Ray, and I & Love & You should be concerned.  After all, there is only so much space available for the pet category within these retail environments.  However, each of these companies have forms of differentiation that they can rely on be it form factor or brand attributes, so Blue Buffalo’s ability to drive traffic to the channel may in fact benefit them as consumers begin to rethink the role of their grocery retailer in fulfilling a critical mass of their pet spend basket.

Every day, the pet industry looks less like a behavioral outlier, and more like its human industry peer group.  The change the industry has undergone over the past 12 months is dramatic, but a new end game is starting to come into focus.  That should excite companies with innovative products, salient marketing messages, and strong execution capabilities.  To the victor go the spoils.

ETA: PetSmart bond prices have declined almost 4% since the announcement.

petm

/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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