Over 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.
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.