sbmIf you have not seen the digital age in pet coming, it’s arrival has now been fully announced.  In the past year, a remarkable number of meaningful events have happened to punctuate it’s arrival.  Many of those events were likely to have gone unnoticed at the time, but in aggregate its hard to ignore.  Notably the past last year was book-ended on one end by Mars acquisition of Whistle Labs (March 31, 2016) and the merger of A Place for Rover and Dog Vacay (March 29, 2017) on the other end.  In between we have witnessed the rise of Chewy.com at the expense of Petco, PetSmart, and even Amazon; Phillips Feed Services acquisition of Petflow for the purpose of arming independent retailers for the digital pet race; and a total $154 million dollars invested in 46 pet-tech deals.

Pet-Tech-Annualnew

Historically, it has been easy to dismiss the digital pet movement as a novelty act, confined to products whose addressable market was small and whose value proposition was narrow.  It’s true that many of the first generation products were poorly designed or over engineered, and generally expensive.  Further, the arrival of pet tech was slowed by the inability of core pet retailers to sell the solution set.  Simply stated, Petco and PetSmart were not well set up to educate consumers on why they needed to own a $200 smart feeder or a $150 remote treating system.  Further, technology retailers, such as Best Buy, knew very little about the category and were therefore unable to effectively merchandise a pet technology set.

Despite these impediments, it’s hard to argue with the results of the market leaders.  Whistle Labs was acquired by Mars for $117 million, representing a high single digit multiple of revenue.  As we detailed in our last post, Chewy.com has achieved over 50% market share in online sales and anticipates 2017 sales of $1.5 billion. Finally, A Place for Rover (Rover.com) was valued at more then $308 million its $40 million Series E financing closed in October 2016.  Rover also announced that it acquired its primary domestic competitor Dog Vacay in a stock-for-stock transaction. In our discussion with other pet technology companies many of them appear poised to deliver strong growth and financial results in 2017.

The collective impact of these digital pet companies and their ascendancy in terms of industry importance can no longer be ignored.  While the negative comps produced by both Petco and PetSmart in 2016, and the recent deterioration of their leveraged loan valuations, can be attributed to a variety of factors, it’s hard to argue that the rise of Chewy.com and the lack of traffic drivers attractive to the Millennials, and subsequent generations, such as pet technology products, has been a key contributor.  The fact that the vast majority of pet food brands are available online, making their availability more commoditized, and not an influencer of store visits, is exacerbating the problem.  Further, Rover and DogVacay have served to disrupt the discretionary services segment of the market, for whom Petco and PetSmart (both boarding and grooming), along with VCA Antech (boarding) and Banfield Animal Health (boarding),  are the most established players.  Prior to the take private, PetSmart generated $750+ million in services revenue annually, accounting for ~ 12% of revenues.

The ability of incumbent players to catch-up digitally is limited.  Earnings based companies are hesitant to acquire companies without an established track record of profitability given their valuation paradigms consist of multiples of EBITDA or contribution margin.  Mars benefited from its private nature when considering the acquisition of Whistle.   A subset of major players we have spoken to are waiting around for these companies to stumble in hopes of acquiring them at bargain prices.  While companies like Chewy.com have “scraped paint” in the past, we see this strategy as unlikely to succeed in the near to medium term.  Those who are called to action, but partially paralyzed by their valuation paradigms will seek to partner.  Whether creating these bridges will be enough to move the needle or insulate them from risk remains to be seen.

/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.