chewyChewy filed an S-1 on April 29th (see filing here).  The offering, if executed will be managed by Allen & Company, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley (list in alphabetical order).  The company will trade under the CHWY ticker. As yet unclear is which exchange they intend to file on, the amount of proceeds (currently there is a $100 million placeholder, which is standard tactic), or the use of proceeds beyond working capital and general corporate purposes.  However, there is much to learn from the filing.

Before wading in, let’s a take a short trip down memory lane.  Chewy was acquired by PetSmart for $3 billion in May 2017. As part of a PetSmart refinancing, the buyer borrowed $8.2 billion and the private equity ownership syndicate injected $1.3 billion of equity.  The publicly traded component of that debt experienced significant volatility post issuance in-light-of PetSmart’s declining performance. The senior debt tranche traded as low as 70% in May 2018, before rebounding to current levels of 87.5%.  The junior tranche traded down to 48%, and today trades at 82.5%, reflecting a much rosier outlook. In June 2018, the ownership group took advantage of an asset stripping clause of the indenture to move 16.5% of the Chewy stock to an unrestricted subsidiary and dividend the parent company 20% of the stock.  The value of Chewy at that time was $4.45 billion and notably Chewy will no longer guarantee PetSmart’s debt. Through this process, the equity owners created a war chest that could be monetized to potentially generate a return on their investment or buy themselves out of debt purgatory at a discount. As you might expect, the creditors disputed the parent company’s legality to undertake the asset stripping, questioning whether the business was insolvent. Earlier this month, the two sides agreed to modify the terms of the debt in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.  The company’s bond prices spiked upon the announcement of the Chewy S-1 (source: Bloomberg):

petm bond

Now that we are all on the same page, let’s dig in.

Chewy.com generated $3.5 billion in Net Revenue during 2018, a growth rate of 68%.  This figure is slightly more than the estimate category sales on Amazon of $3.3B. Based on the S-1, ecommerce penetration in the category stands at 14%, with growth to 25% in 2022. Notably, Chewy generated a $268 million Net Loss, down from a $338 million Net Loss in 2017. The company warns that profitability may never be achieved, though this is a standard disclaimer.  The business currently has 10.6 million customers who order, on average, $334 annually. In 2012, this figure was $223, representing a ~ 7.0% six-year CAGR.  Notably, the company states that embedded growth among its customer base is 20%. This is growth that the Chewy would expect to experience through expansion of wallet share if it did not acquire any new customers.  Active customers spend, on average $500 in their second year and $750 after their sixth year, 1.5x their second year spend, which is usually their first full year on the platform.  The S-1 does not address customer churn.  Chewy generates approximately 80% of sales from consumables, of which 5.3% of total Net Sales are attributable to its housebrands.

While all the above is well and good and interesting, the most notable metric is the ratio of customer life-time-value to acquisition-cost, commonly referred to as LTV / CAC. This ratio speaks to how sustainable your customer acquisition engine is and a common predictor of future results. Based on the performance of its 2015 cohort, which is now three years aged, Chewy’s LTV / CAC was 2.4x.  The generally accepted benchmark for healthy performance on this metric is 3.0x, indicating some concern with the health of the business model and its ability to become profitable over time.

In thinking about what Chewy might be worth in an IPO, the comp that we gravitate towards is Wayfair.  The online retailer of furniture and home goods currently generates $6.8 billion of net sales, losing $404 million of EBITDA. The business currently trades at 2.1x LTM Revenues.  When you dig into the comp set analysts rely on in pricing the stock, that group trades at ~ 1.15x Fiscal 2018 Revenue and 1.0x Fiscal 2019 Revenue. This would value the business at $4.1 billion based on 2018 figures and $4.4 billion based on 2019 figures, assuming a 25% growth rate for 2019, with the caveat that no forward guidance is offered in the S-1 but in-line with the June 2018 valuation.

In our Spring Pet Industry report, we postulated that PetSmart may need to sell or IPO Chewy, but the realization of that option is manifesting itself sooner than we had anticipated.  The public markets are being tested with offerings of conceptually attractive businesses with a proclivity for losing money.  The net of this is the risk reward tradeoff being contemplated here is not without an ample helping of downside potential.

/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.

And we are back…

The pet industry continues to evolve towards its new normal.  However, while it appears the volatility within the industry has decreased, tremors continue and several events could catalyze a second wave of transformational change.  Central going forward is that the industry now finds itself facing some new pain points with no clear path to resolution.

Of increasing significance, latency between consumer trends and pet trends has compressed from years to months, which will put immense pressure on the industry’s antiquated regulatory framework. Consumer demand for pet products that incorporate CBD, human diet concepts such as Keto and Paleo, and protein alternatives is significant but lacks regulatory and, in some cases, legal clarity. That has not stopped manufacturers or retailers from bringing these products to market in order to satisfy demand. If AAFCO cannot evolve to become more nimble and responsive, the industry will become more risky to all involved.

Also of significance, is that the risk associated with the repositioning of Petco and PetSmart could result in major downstream implications. As Petco forges ahead with its new wellness enabled vision, PetSmart has largely stood still lacking financial flexibility.  The success of Petco’s strategy could put pressure on PetSmart to sell or IPO Chewy, it’s most valuable liquid asset. Notably, a Chew S-1 was filed on April 29th (see here). Tepid operational results for Petco or from investors during a Chewy IPO roadshow, could place these two organizations on a merger path in order to remain relevant.

Slower industry growth is driving consolidation, a theme that will continue for the foreseeable future. The cost of doing business in the pet industry has increased as physical and online retailers monetize their market positions, making it more difficult for midsized and emerging brands to compete. Given the pace of change, strategics are under more pressure to acquire assets that enable them to meet emerging customer needs, or risk losing out on the ability to monetize faster growing market opportunities. Private equity is leading the consolidation charge due to broader business malaise prevalent among large strategics, which will enhance focus on profitability as the key criteria underlying acquisitions and put downward pressure on valuations

Notwithstanding slower growth and more turbulent competitive dynamics, we believe the current environment offers a market opportunity that may not manifest itself again for some time.  The other key trends we are keeping our eye include:

  • Blue Buffalo Banks Further on FDM. General Mills announced that they intend to double Blue Buffalo’s retail availability by April 2019. Central to this strategy will be launching Wilderness in FDM. When Blue transitioned Life Protection Formula in August 2017, it communicated its intention to protect the pet specialty channel by preserving exclusive access to its others brands. The quest for growth and profits rendered that commitment fleeting. By the end of April, according to General Mills earnings presentation Blue will have a retail ACV of 65%, up from 32% in October 2018.  Retail sales declines in pet specialty necessitated the move according to General Mills executive leadership. Notably, Blue also posted 24% ecommerce growth for the nine months ending February 2019.  If there is anything left in the relationship between Blue and pet specialty we will soon find out.
  • Amazon Accelerates but Housebrands Not a Category Killer. According to Packaged Facts, Amazon generated pet category sales of $3.3 billion in 2018, giving it a 6% share of the market. Amazon pet food sales exceeded $1 billion in 2018, up over 20%.  However, Amazon’s own housebrand Wag, launched in mid-2018, only accounted for $2 million of these sales. While Amazon housebrand sales will invariably increase over time and benefit from the launch of complementary brands, such as Solimo, owning the buy box is not yet translating into changing consumer behavior. Most Wag and Solimo product ratings are 3.5 to 4 stars, evidence of mix sentiment, and the launch has been plagued by production issues. A study by Marketplace Pulse suggested that Amazon housebrands across categories were having limited impact on brand sales online. With estimates for online penetration of pet food sales reaching as high as 50% over time, Amazon stands to benefit anyway you look at it.
  • Petco Launches Repositioning Strategy. Petco is ushering in a comprehensive new strategy firmly rooted in the health and wellness driver of industry growth. Petco’s approach involves eliminating products whose formulations feature artificial ingredients. As part of this process, Petco will seek to transition customers in many leading national brands to its housebrands and other channel dedicated brands. Criticism has ensued as Petco’s housebrand formulations may not fully comply with their own standards and many brands they are removing appear to be for financial or competitive reasons. Additionally, Petco launched its PetCoach store which “offers the highest quality suite of personalized pet services, products and experiences – all designed through a veterinary lens – to address total pet health and wellness.” While its competitor runs in place, we applaud Petco for its efforts to reframe its appeal and relevancy to pet owners. However, if traffic and transactions don’t materialize, Petco may lack the flexibility for a further pivot. Get your magic 8-ball ready.
  • Follow the Funds to See the Industry’s Future. 2018 was a record year for industry consolidation, but it also outperformed in terms of private placements, as equity flowed into the category at record levels. Over $1 billion of equity capital was invested in pet related enterprises since 2017. Notably, the year was punctuated by larger deals, with the median deal size of $45 million among transactions whose proceeds yielded more than $5 million. Investments in dog-walking apps accounted for 40% of deal value, but 23% went into ingredient manufacturing companies, with an additional 7% flowing to direct-to-consumer dog food brands. Institutional equity is flocking to these opportunities because they are not well served by existing market participants. The deals of today will fuel the exits three to five years down the road, which will only serve to extend the consolidation cycle. However, the subsectors attracting capital speak to a much broader market opportunity within the industry.

As always, if you are interested in accessing our full report you can reach out to me directly.

/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.

 

 

spinoffI enjoy the holidays as much as the next person.  Every year I seem to make some new friends during the party circuit that accompanies each Yuletide.  This year was no exception.  However, who those friends were was a departure from historical norms. All my new pals had one thing in common — they were PetSmart bondholders.

My firm does not engage in sales or trading of public equity or debt securities, nor do we provide any research products tied to specific companies or offerings, so for a critical mass of hedge fund managers to end up at my doorstep was a bit of a surprise.  All of them wanted to know if I thought PetSmart would spinoff Chewy.com.  To better understand why that was such a pressing question some context is required.

When PetSmart acquired Chewy in April 2017, they financed the purchase with a combination of debt ($3.25 billion) and equity. The debt component include two tranches of publicly traded notes (first and second lien).  The price of the debt began to slide within one month of the close, and picked-up steam when Blue Buffalo jumped the channel in August followed closely by the departure of PetSmart’s CEO. A third quarter earnings miss added fuel to the fire (EBITDA down 34% year-over-year).  The company’s second lien notes have traded as low as the mid-50s, while the first lien note have traded as low as the mid-70s, a healthy discount to par.  The notes were among the worst performing junk debt issuances of 2017.  However, what caused PetSmart bondholders to worry most was the fact that the covenant package tied to the debt would allow the private equity syndicate to separate Chewy from PetSmart for its own benefit, and to the detriment of creditors.

The primary motivation of private equity investors is first and foremost financial gain.  That is not to say they do not provide a direct or indirect public good, but rather I would never put it past this class of investors to pursue what was in their own best interest.  While separating Chewy from PetSmart might be theoretically viable under the terms of the bonds, we think the carve-out has more risk than reward.

While Chewy remains the market leading ecommerce property in the pet space, its value proposition is eroding.  Post-closing of the transaction, a small number of notable brands exited the platform, dealing the company a topline financial hit. The transaction also accelerated a movement within the retail community for the implementation of MAP pricing policies.  While MAP can be hard for smaller brands to enforce, it appears that most companies are making reasonable efforts to communicate and enforce these policies.  Of greater significance is the fact that Chewy was losing money at the time of the sale, meaning it would need more cash to sustain its growth.  Separating from PetSmart would result in the loss of significant purchasing leverage, meaning even further losses.  Absent a major cash infusion, Chewy would need a public float to perpetuate the business model.  Public comps with this business model trade at 1.0x – 2.0x revenue, much lower than the multiples paid for the banner.

The net of all this is that I do not see a full separation as a likely outcome.  At the very least it would lead to years of expensive litigation. Rather, I believe the private equity syndicate will use the threat of a spinoff to renegotiate with bondholders if and when needed.  If a spinoff does occur, expect it to involve less then 50% of Chewy, such that the entity can continue to be consolidated for financial reporting purposes and enjoy the benefit of PetSmart’s purchasing power to offset losses.

/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.

 

 

 

 

 

Where you stand, depends on where you sit.” — Rufus Miles, Princeton University

m8bAs we round the “club house turn” for the calendar year, it is natural to begin focusing on the year ahead and what it might hold (or bring, depending on your preference).  It is common for these final days to be filled with conversations about what we are seeing today and what we anticipate tomorrow.  As we catalog perspectives, through these conversations, as it relates to the next twelve months for the pet industry, the narratives fall into one of two camps — the sky is falling or the sun is sure to rise tomorrow.  It appears which camp one finds themselves in is highly correlated to whether the outlook might benefit the prognosticating party.  This is the classic application of Miles Law.

Your guess is as good as mine with respect to where the industry might go in 2018.  However, here are the key things to watch:

  • Blue Boom or Blue Gloom? — If you talk to equity analysts, Blue Buffalo has become a battleground stock.  The long narrative is about growth as penetration increases.  The short narrative is tied to slower uptake and discounting in FDM, retailer retaliation, and class action litigation.  The recent sales data is compelling but it includes a considerable amount of sell-in and discount driven velocity.  One would be wise to wait until 2Q2018 to pass judgement, but patience is boring.  Bull Case: Gravity and Blue Buffalo have seldom been bedfellows, and today is not the day for them to become better acquainted.  Bear Case: When margin compression and the inevitable pet specialty scaleback hits the stock, it will be a wake up call for investors.  Magic 8-Ball Says: Signs point to yes.
  • PetSmart: Comeback Kid or Sophomore Slump? — The biggest unknown is how the revised PetSmart strategy will resonate in 2018.  The March consumables reset will provide meaningful insight into their Blue Buffalo sales replacement strategy.  We hear the new set is a literal “dogs breakfast” — something for everyone, including FDM brands bridging to major pet specialty.  How Pinnacle Pet Store performs will be critical.  Currently, the brands on promo are an eclectic mix.  We also know multiple PetSmart/Petco brands are in current FDM tests. I don’t put much weight into the prevailing theory that Chewy.com will get spun out from under the bondholders, but never underestimate private equity owners to further their own interest at the expense of debtors. With MAP pricing getting more prevalent, and with the major distributors over leveraged (see below), PetSmart could see improved traffic trends.  The bigger issue is how they create greater leverage with Chewy.com.  Currently, PetSmart is trading 40% gross margin customers for 10% gross margin customers.  We assume the loss of Champion and Fromm means any earnout in the deal is underwater making Chewy leadership a flight risk.  Bull Case: Blue FDM stalls, PetSmart gets traction with omnichannel capabilities, the bonds hit 80.  Bear Case: Did you know the private equity owners also control a crisis management PR firm?.  Magic 8-Ball Says: Cannot predict now.
  • Indy Sink of Swim? — Independents are also at a critical moment.  They have held the upper hand on selection and access and continue to enjoy that advantage due to Champion and Fromm channel conviction and access to emerging brands and alternative form factor foods. However, they generally lack an ecommerce strategy and a recession looms, all though tax reform may push that event down the road.  Of note, both Animal Supply and Phillips Feed Service are overlevered and credit analysis points to softness in the independent channel.  If the independent channel experiences product access constraints due to its reliance on these distributors, it will make it hard to effectively merchandise and retain customers.  Bull Case: Continued PetSmart malaise and erosion of online advantage through MAP keep indy on the front foot.  Bear Case: PetSmart turnaround coupled with distributor issues drives contraction within the category.  Magic 8-Ball Says: Ask again later.
  • Private Equity: Buyer or Seller? — Given late market cycle dynamics we are sure to see an uptick in transaction opportunities in 2018.  With a meaningful subset of strategic consolidators under pressure (some through no fault of their own) or hunting for transformative acquisitions (good luck), private equity is expected to play a larger role in the deal landscape during the balance of the cycle.  The recent sale of Outward Hound and Manna Pro Products, are evidence that private equity will pay-up for scale pet properties that have robust M&A pipelines. Further, the defensive nature of the pet industry is an attractive for private equity given the potential for a recession during their holding period.  Bull Case: Private equity uses the current market opportunity to create a number of new consolidator platforms.  Bear Case: Rising credit costs and channel concerns curtail interest.  Magic 8-Ball Says: Outlook good.

No matter where you stand, based on your last point of rest, it is hard to argue that the pet industry is no longer in the honeymoon phase. The change cycle that began nearly two years ago, continues. Signs point to further volatility ahead. However, with turbulence comes opportunity. Magic 8-Ball Says: It is decidedly so.

/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.

 

fence jumperOn April 18th, PetSmart announced the acquisition of Chewy, Inc., owner and operator of the chewy.com website.  On April 21st, Tuffy’s Pet Food, a brand of KLN Family Brands, announced that it was terminating its partnership with Chewy in what was termed a “show of support for the independent pet specialty channel.”  As a result of the move, KLN received considerable positive press, and likely bolstered its standing among independent retailers.  The first mover often enjoys the disproportionate amount of the spoils.

While it is unlikely that anyone predicted Tuffy’s would be first to find the exit, let alone do it so quickly, undoubtedly the buyer and seller had to assume that there would be customer loss associated with a transaction of this nature.  The issue really was not whether Tuffy’s was going to stay or go, but whether widely distributed brands who generate a meaningful portion of their sales online would continue with the platform.  Other likely defectors were going to come from brands that call Petco home, and therefore have no existing distribution in PetSmart. There was established precedent here.  When PetSmart acquired Pet360, several brands opted out of the platform.

To the informed, this put the focus on Champion Petfoods, Fromm Family Foods, and Merrick Pet Care.  The later because it continued to be a Petco exclusive, even after its acquisition by Nestle Purina.  At issue for the former two was the fact that Chewy represented a significant customer, and likely its fastest growing.  On July 10th, both Champion and Fromm disclosed, through different mechanisms, that they had in fact exited their relationship with chewy.com due to their individual commitments to the independent pet specialty channel.  The Facebook pages of both brands lit up with comments expressing both adulation and disdain for the move.  Rumor is that Chewy was encouraging platform loyalists to express their displeasure online.

Reaction to the news was quick to fill up my inbox, suggesting that this was an unforeseen circumstance and would likely lead down the path of a write-down for PetSmart on its acquisition.  Given that both brands defected when PetSmart acquired Pet360, I suggest that this circumstance was likely known, or at the very least contemplated, from the outset.  If not, someone was negligent in doing their due diligence.  More than likely this impacts Chewy’s ability to earn any contingent consideration tied to revenue or customer retention.  Potentially it hastens Ryan Cohen’s path to exiting the business he founded and that made him wealthy, assuming he is only sticking around to get the last dollar out of the deal.

In sorting out the winners and loser of these decisions, there is less clarity than one might expect.  The impact would, to a large extent, depend on what you believe the physical and emotional substitutes are for the end customer.  If the customer is tied to the brand, the beneficiaries will be the independent retailers as the brands intended it to be.  These brands are staples of the independent channel and vital to their competitive advantage. However, if cost and convenience trump (no pun intended) brand loyalty, Chewy has the potential to transition pet owners to other premium and super premium brands that remain in their stable, including their own product set American Journey. Many of the comments on the Facebook pages of Champion and Fromm suggest customers are considering a switch, but that may be motivated by the catalyst above. I would also argue that Phillips Feed Service’s acquisition of Petflow looks better by the day. They should see owners transition to the petflow.com platform, as they are competitive on price with chewy.com, but it might also motivate independent pet stores to adopt their Endless Aisles solution set, seeking to step into the Chewy void for these brands.  However, if Champion and Fromm use this shake-up as an opportunity to begin directly selling their product to end customers, the end results may not be known for some time.

It is natural to seek to look at the above situation and try and paint Chewy and/or PetSmart as “the bad guy”.  However, I would argue that a healthy chewy.com is good for the entire pet industry offering consumers additional choice in the form of an alternative sales channel, and pushing back on price in an industry that has experienced considerable price inflation post-recession.  Without Chewy, the price of Champion and Fromm products is likely to increase, at least online, and that is not a favorable outcome for pet owners no matter how you slice up the pie.

/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.

 

 

 

 

blue dog 2Over the past five years, interest in the potential and performance of the online channel for pet products has become an increasingly hot topic.  The narrative around pet ecommerce has been fueled, in part, by a change in ownership demographics, but more significantly by the lack of transparent data regarding the size of and growth rate in the channel.  Quite simply, no one knows how much pet food is sold online or how fast the channel is actually growing, and therefore everyone is free to speculate.  The loss of PetSmart as a public reporting entity only further exacerbated this reality.

What we have known for some time is that online is taking share and its growth is a key driver of malaise within major pet specialty.  Whether you source your information from Packaged Facts, IBISWorld, or Euromonitor, all three entities have online pet products sales in the U.S. growing at between 10% – 15%.  Further, according to Packaged Facts 2016 National Pet Owner Survey, 46% of pet owners buy products online, an increase of 5% from 2015. Thus, the intent from a consumer perspective continues to rise.  Additionally, Blue Buffalo, widely believed to be the top selling pet food brand online, CEO Billy Bishop commented, in the company’s most recent earnings call, that the shift to online is occurring much faster than anyone at Blue Buffalo anticipated.  Couple this with the fact that during FY16, Blue Buffalo’s share of sales outside of major pet specialty increased from 33% in Q1 to 41% by Q4 primarily behind the sharp increase in ecommerce.

No entity has been more responsible for shaking up the pet retail world than Chewy.com.  In November 2016, we got our first real glimpse into the organization when a Bloomberg article detailed that the company anticipated that it would generate $880 million in sales for the calendar year.  Further, it projected 70% growth in 2017, bringing the company’s topline to $1.5 billion.  A recent Miami Herald article pushed that number to $2 billion. According to a recent survey by 1010data, Chewy.com has approximately 51% share of the online pet products market including autoship revenues.  This contrasts with Amazon at 35%, also inclusive of autoship.  Chewy also leads in subscription pet food sales at 10.2% versus 7.6% for Amazon.  PetSmart garners 7.9% of the market when you consolidate its own banner (2.2%) with sales of its Pet360 (5.7%) acquisition.  Petco clocks in at 3.1%, while Wal Mart (< 1%) barely registers. Finally, Chewy employs 200 full time portrait artists who churn out 700 oil paintings a week for unsuspecting customers.

Chewy, which has never turned a profit and has been funded by $261 million of equity, raised over five rounds, and $90 million of debt, is in the process of upping the table stakes.  The company recently launched its American Journey house brand of dry kibble.  American Journey, which comes in seven flavors, currently costs $39.99 for a 25-lb. bag before autoship discount.  This is $8 – $10 less than a comparable sized bag of Blue Buffalo on the site.  Notably, American Journey is made by one of Blue Buffalo’s co-packers. Additionally, Chewy launched Tylee’s, their human grade fresh/frozen pet food brand aimed squarely at the increasing band of upstarts seeking to deliver human meal equivalents for your pet. The company is also said to be working on a public offering slated for 2018.

The question of whether Chewy.com can be stopped has been answered. It’s most recent financings ($75 million of equity from BlackRock and $90 million in debt from Wells Fargo) suggest that investors are looking past the profitability profile and instead focusing on the growth history and the potential IPO valuation.  Mutual funds targeting a pre-IPO stake are likely accessible should the company need additional funding. The more intriguing question is whether there is a transaction alternative that might be more attractive to Chewy shareholders than a public offering.  As Chewy.com Chairman Mark Vadon, who co-founded Zulily, can attest, being a public company without earnings is not all that it is cracked up to be.  We rule out an Amazon combination for a myriad of reasons.  This leads us to Petco or PetSmart as the most logical destination.  While somewhat counter-intuitive on the surface, if Chewy.com could extract more value in a combination than an IPO, why not consider it?  Given the weak comps we have been hearing coming out of Petco and PetSmart, a combination with Chewy.com would solve a myriad of problems.  Chewy would gain access to cash flow and hundreds of local warehouses, while Petco or PetSmart would be able to rationalize its store base and gain the pole position in pet omni-channel.  It might not be as far-fetched as we think.

/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.

 

 

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.