m8bA common refrain in the pet industry is that to predict the future of the consumables category, you need only to look back on the prevailing human trends three years prior. Today, I would argue that this rule-of-thumb applies more broadly, to a cross section of pet industry categories, than previously appreciated. As an example, the rise of ecommerce in the pet industry follows a similar trajectory to a number of human categories that were thought to be “Amazon proof”.  This is why I think pet industry participants should be paying attention to recent funding deals for Freshly, Inc., whose $77 million Series D was led by Nestle, USA, and Chef’d, LLC, whose $17.6 million Series B was led by Campbell Soup Company.

Both Freshly and Chef’d are in the business of delivering fresh food to your door step.  In the case of Freshly, these are fresh prepared meals, which require minimal intervention to get them from the packaging to the plate.  Chef’d delivers personalized meal-kits, which you then prepare at home, in as little as 10 minutes.  As a side note, I’ve never completed a meal kit from any company in under an hour, but maybe that says more about my cooking skills than anything else. Notably Chef’d partners with culinary and media personalities to create menu inspirations.  That said, what these companies deliver is less interesting than who is financing the growth of their business.

Large human food companies have significantly increased their investment activity in emerging food brands over the past 24 months.  Major industry players have set up dedicated investing units to source and evaluate opportunities.  The human food industry has largely outsourced its research and development function to start-ups who are seeking to capitalize on emerging consumer trends.  These companies become investment or acquisition targets if their solution set demonstrates the ability to resonate with a large enough audience and if their production processes can scale.  However, this pattern has, to-date, largely been confined to product companies.  Freshly and Chef’d are direct-to-consumer distribution companies cloaked in a product orientation.

The pet industry has its Freshly and Chef’d corollaries.  Companies like JustFoodForDogs and The Farmer’s Dog, have both recently received major cash infusions from financial players.  There are numerous others competing for this emerging space — Ollie Pet, NomNomNow, PetPlate, to name a few.  Yet, I believe the investment trend illustrated by the Freshly and Chef’d transactions tells us more about the real value of scale direct-to-consumer businesses such as A Place for Rover and Bark & Co., than the potential for fresh food delivery in the pet category, whose future we also think is bright.

What the pet food and products manufacturers have in common with their human counterparts is their core means of distribution are under siege by small retailers who provide better service and/or in-store experience as well as by the internet.  As such, any opportunity to get directly to the end customer is highly coveted, and therefore of great value. Within the pet category, there are a very limited set of players that have proven their ability to directly access a critical mass of pet owners.  Therefore, as large manufacturers look for direct-to-consumer exposure they will be left with a choice of ascribing a very high value to an asset with breadth or taking a calculated risk on an upstart.

What these large strategics are looking for is the ability to build a relationship directly with a consumer that is tied solely to the product or offering, and that exists outside of that buyer’s relationship with any retailer, physical or digital. If they own the customer they can look to monetize him or her in a variety of ways, capturing more the the margin along the way. We believe this trend to be applicable to both product and service providers in the pet category.

The question then becomes what would a tie-up between a Mars/Purina/J.M. Smucker Company and a Rover/Bark & Co. mean for the acquired entity.  Would consumers have the same affinity for their Bark Box if it only included treats from the buyer organization, or is the lack of affiliation that part of the value proposition?  We don’t know the answer to that question, but if we follow the story of Freshly and Chef’d going forward, we may well find out.

/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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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.

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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.