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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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mockingjayEarlier this month, Petco Animal Supplies and PetSmart stores in Topeka, Kansas, and adjacent Lawrence, Kansas, removed from their shelves Hill’s Science Diet and Ideal Balance products.  Store managers have been telling customers that the brands is not coming back on shelf.  Notably, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a subsidiary of Colgate Palmolive, is headquartered in Topeka.

Consider the above action a shot across the bow in the dynamically evolving landscape of pet food retail.  To better understand the future, and what this gambit might mean, one must begin with a look at the past.

Hill’s Pet Nutrition was founded in 1907. The company started in the rendering business.  By 1930, the company had evolved into packing company, producing animal feed, dog food, and horsemeat for human consumption in Norway, Finland, and Sweden.  In 1948, Dr. Mark Morris contacted Hill’s seeking a producer for Canine k/d, his brand of healthy scientifically engineered pet food.  In 1968, Canine k/d was made available to veterinarians as Hill’s Science Diet.  The brand evolved into a broad line of prescription and breed specific solutions available through veterinarians and pet specialty retailers.  In 1978, Hill’s became part of the Colgate family through a merger of Hill’s parent company.  In 1999, Hill’s sales reached $1 billion.

What is particularly significant was the fact that Hill’s was at the forefront of the healthy pet food revolution, albeit with a scientific approach. Further, long before there was Blue Buffalo, Hill’s, along with Nutro, was one of the biggest drivers of customer traffic to pet specialty retailers on the market.  Thus, for Petco and PetSmart to declare war on Hill’s is, for lack of a better term, A BIG DEAL.

The makings of this feud can be traced back five years.  Beginning in 2011, Hill’s pet food sales began to stagnate.  The company, whose products evoked images of white lab coats and engineers, found itself on the wrong side of a change in consumer preference, and therefore purchase intent.  Instead of favoring science based nutrition solutions, pet owners began to favor products whose ingredient panels best mirrored their own diet.  White lab coats were replaced by images of roasted turkey, market vegetables, and whole grains.  Natural triumphed over engineered.

Hill’s, being part of a large consumer packaged goods firm, was not content to let its franchise slip away. The company tried to change with the market, launching Science Diet Nature’s Best, a naming convention approaching the absurd.  Not surprisingly the disconnect remained.  Hill’s responded with the launch of Ideal Balance, its “natural” solution, but was slow to win back customers. While Hill’s revenues had grown to $2.2 billion in 2015, this number represented essentially flat growth between 2011 – 2015.  To maintain sales, Hill’s embraced the internet as a channel.  In 2015, Hill’s represented 7.5% of online pet food sales, taking the third position behind Blue Buffalo (12.3%) and Wellness (9.0%).  It attained that position by turning a blind eye to the price discount pet food retailers where charging for its solution set, thereby drawing the ire of Petco and PetSmart.  And you understand why we-are-where-we-are.

One has to surmise that Hill’s knows quite well what it is doing and the consequences of its actions. My understanding is they have recently put pressure on major online retail sites to enforce their MAP policy based, in turn, on pressure from Petco and PetSmart. However, if Hill’s cannot get back in the good graces of its top premise based retailers, prepare to find Science Diet and Ideal Balance at big box store near you.  The likes of Target and Wal Mart would welcome Hill’s and its customer base with open arms. Whether this is a brilliant move by Colgate or the straw that breaks the brands back remains to be seen.

Of greater interest is what this means for Blue Buffalo.  A big box Hill’s is not going to be a welcome site for the veterinary community who drives the disproportionate sales of prescription diets and is a big influencer of Science Diet sales.  Blue Buffalo has staked the next leg of its growth stool on its veterinary line of products.  If Hill’s defects, that will create a fracture in the relationship between the company and the veterinary community that Blue Buffalo could be poised to exploit.  That’s not to say it won’t have fierce competition for that mind share from the likes of Royal Canin and Purina, but thirty days ago that market looked much tougher to crack.

Let the games begin.

/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.