wall2I know what you are thinking.  I’m not talking about that wall.  I’m talking about this wall, the one Blue Buffalo, post-acquisition, seems hurtling towards.  Recently, we received further evidence that the risk of gravity catching up with the brand may be more likely than not.

General Mills released first quarter earnings (note: for GIS, fiscal 1Q aligns with calendar 3Q), which include a decline in North American sales, across all sources of revenue, of 2.1%.  While pet food sales rose 14% in quarter, sales at retailers (sell-in) increased only 9%.  These numbers are optically appealing, but represent a slowdown of Blue Buffalo’s growth rate pre-acquisition.  Also factoring into the equation was that the quarter had an extra selling week, which, when considered, means the business grew mid-single-digits.  Adding to the woes was reported input cost inflation as well as continued expenses associated with the new production plant.

To rewind, prior to the acquisition Blue was growing at a healthy clip, delivering quarterly sales growth of 18.4% in 3Q17 and 14.2% in 4Q17, the two quarters immediately preceding the acquisition. The company had effectively explained away the performance malaise that it is experienced in 1H2018 (7.9% in 1Q and 2.8% in 2Q), as a failure on behalf of major pet specialty to execute and leveraged that narrative to move a subset of their product line into FDM. The size and timing of the FDM rollout masked issues with the company’s business in several ways.  Of greatest significance, it gave the company a greenfield revenue opportunity which juiced their comps, making comparisons between historical and current periods to be akin to comparing apples and oranges.  However, the size and scope of the rollout, in combination, with the stealth nature of the lead-up to launch, obscured the fact that the initial velocity growth was heavily aided by promotions and discounts.  It’s quite common for this to be the case, but it was also not something Blue Buffalo drew out in its narrative to the street.  It’s notable, the brands data, as tracked by IRI in the weeks leading up to the deal dropped off the table, declining from 13.4% to 1.9%.

What was unknown at the time of the deal, was what impact, if any, retaliatory action taken by retailers would have on the business.  Petco and PetSmart sales and traffic, have continued to flag.  However, PetSmart has completed a major reset of its consumables aisle and its bond prices have appreciated materially, in part based on 22% sales growth at Chewy.com. Additionally, based on my store visits in various geographies ranging from major coastal cities to smaller towns in middle America (certainly not scientific by any means) there is some de-emphasizing of the brand in terms of placement, promotion, and mind share.

Further, post deal, Amazon launched its own private label pet food, Wag. While the Wag rollout, has not been seamless, the product generally enjoys 4-star reviews from an increasing number of verified purchases. Approximately 50% of customers have given the product 5-stars on both the 5-lb. and 30-lb. bags, though the 5-lb. bags experienced some problems with product delivery during the initial rollout, according to One Click Retail.  Amazon experienced 30% growth in pet products sales in the first half of 2018.

What the future holds here is unknown, but the bloom seems to be off the bull case. Analysts have taken their estimates of Blue Buffalo organic sales down to mid-single-digits from low-double-digits, despite management re-affirming the sales guidance for the higher amount.  The brand starts to lap the initial FDM rollout in the back half of the year, so comps get tougher.  Further, management stressed that it sees opportunities to repair their relationships with Petco and PetSmart, enhance in-store execution, and increase visibility of channel exclusive innovation in pet specialty. Given that the leadership of major pet specialty chains learned about the FDM rollout just prior to the general public, I am not sure enough time has passed to heal those wounds, though both entities now have new CEOs. Finally, while the China trade war tariffs are not impacting food, they are touching a broad range of pet products, which may reduce store visits, especially in major pet specialty.  This should factor into the calculus.

While Blue Buffalo may have a softer landing than we expect, it is clear that the stakes for General Mills are already higher than anyone expected them to be. How high can a buffalo jump?

/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.