U.S. Veterinarians steel themselves for online pharmacy challenge

Destiny Brown, Dr. Katie Buss, and Kingsley family pose with puppies at the Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio, U.S., on April 26, 2019. Picture taken on April 26, 2019. Courtesy Jennifer Blodgett/Kings Veterinary Hospital/Handout via REUTERS

By Manas Mishra and Tamara Mathias

(Reuters) – A David and Goliath battle is brewing in the business of selling prescription medicines for pets, pitching veterinarians against online giants moving into this lucrative corner of the growing market for animal supplies.

Americans spent $72.56 billion last year on their pets, according to American Pet Products Association. Prescription drugs were expected to account for over $10 billion, according to an estimate.

With deep discounts and online convenience, Walmart Inc, soon-to-be listed Chewy.com and Amazon.com Inc’s Wag brand have effectively conquered the market for pet food, care products and other supplies, but until now veterinary practices, which both prescribe and sell drugs, have been a major source of prescription medication.

While Amazon so far has shown no interest in that market, Chewy’s and Walmart’s forays into the online pet pharmacy business threaten to change that, prompting veterinary clinics to seek help in defending their turf. Enter Covetrus Inc, Vet Source, which partners with Patterson Companies Inc, and others that offer tools to help vets manage their practices and give customers the convenience they have come to expect from online shopping.

“We started to realize this is what our clients want,” said Stephanie Foster, practice manager at Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio. “They want to be able to order things at 11 o’ clock at night. They’re used to the Amazon mentality.”

Foster says she began using Covetrus to order drugs and supplies for the practice after it began losing sales of pet food and other products to online retailers. Now, her hospital has a website run by Covetrus under the practice’s name that effectively acts as its online pharmacy.

With that comes software that helps the clinic manage its inventory and track prescriptions, so Foster knows when clients need a refill and for those in Covetrus collects a service fee that is a percentage of sales.

Foster said partnering with Covetrus has helped boost overall sales by half over the past three years because it gives clients online convenience, timely reminders and, despite the fees, competitive prices.

“Covetrus now has more leverage with the manufacturers than I will ever have as a small business,” she said. “They’re able to get the manufacturers to agree to instant rebates and they can do flash sales on products and things that we just can’t compete with.” 

The company, formed by the combination of medical supply firm Henry Schein’s animal health unit and Vet’s First Choice and listed in February, represents some 100,000 veterinary practices globally. In the United States, 27,000 use some form of its services with over 8,000 – about a quarter of the market – signed up for prescription management, Covetrus says.

HOME TURF ADVANTAGE

PetSmart Inc-backed Chewy.com, whose sales soared from $26 million to $3.5 billion between 2012 and 2018, said in a filing ahead of its New York Stock Exchange debut this month it planned to expand its online pharmacy business launched last year.

The company has yet to update on the pharmacy’s performance and it would not comment for this article, citing the silent period ahead of its stock exchange debut.

Walmart joined the fray last month when it launched its online pet pharmacy WalmartPetRx.com and said it aimed to operate 100 in-store animal clinics by the end of the year.

Analysts say, however, the prescription pet medicine business could prove more challenging than other pet products.

Those who want to buy medication online still need a prescription from a vet and must either email or upload a copy or have the online retailer contact the practice first.

That, analysts say, offers the practices a chance to sell the first batch on site and then direct customers to their own online service.

Kristen Cook, a practice manager at the Belton Veterinary Clinic in Belton, Texas, says their doctors have no obligation to write a prescription for those shopping elsewhere and the clinic’s policy is to handle prescriptions internally.

“It’s not something like I am handing them a piece of paper to take it wherever they want to take it,” Cook said.

The stakes are high.

Cook said that at least half of the clinic’s revenue comes from prescription drug sales.

Nationally, pharmacy sales on average make up about a third of a practice’s revenue, according to Gary Glassman, partner at accounting and financial services firm Burzenski & Company, which serves veterinary practices across the country.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says, however, that 40 states have already adopted laws, regulations or guidelines that specifically or implicitly require veterinarians to provide a written prescription upon request in some circumstances.

To see the summary report from AVMA, please click here

This means pet owners could fill those prescriptions with Chewy or other online providers, and the market is just too attractive to e-commerce players for the vets and their partners to get complacent, analysts say.

According to a 2018 TD Ameritrade online survey of U.S. millennial pet owners, they were willing to spend up to $2,000 on average if their pet got sick, with dog owners prepared to spend more on their pets than what they expected to spend on their own healthcare.

“People are treating their pets more like people,” William Blair analyst John Kreger said. “Historically … you’d frankly euthanize the pet when they started to have some of these chronic conditions. That’s just not happening now.”

(Reporting by Tamara Mathias and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Writing by Patrick Graham; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

Black Friday, Thanksgiving online sales climb to record high

Black Friday, Thanksgiving online sales climb to record high

By Richa Naidu

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Black Friday and Thanksgiving online sales in the United States surged to record highs as shoppers bagged deep discounts and bought more on their mobile devices, heralding a promising start to the key holiday season, according to retail analytics firms.

U.S. retailers raked in a record $7.9 billion in online sales on Black Friday and Thanksgiving, up 17.9 percent from a year ago, according to Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions at the largest 100 U.S. web retailers, on Saturday.

Adobe said Cyber Monday is expected to drive $6.6 billion in internet sales, which would make it the largest U.S. online shopping day in history.

In the run-up to the holiday weekend, traditional retailers invested heavily in improving their websites and bulking up delivery options, preempting a decline in visits to brick-and-mortar stores. Several chains tightened store inventories as well, to ward off any post-holiday liquidation that would weigh on profits.

TVs, laptops, toys and gaming consoles – particularly the PlayStation 4 – were among the most heavily discounted and the biggest sellers, according to retail analysts and consultants.

Commerce marketing firm Criteo said 40 percent of Black Friday online purchases were made on mobile phones, up from 29 percent last year.

No brick-and-mortar sales data for Thanksgiving or Black Friday was immediately available, but Reuters reporters and industry analysts noted anecdotal signs of muted activity – fewer cars in mall parking lots, shoppers leaving stores without purchases in hand.

Stores offered heavy discounts, creative gimmicks and free gifts to draw bargain hunters out of their homes, but some shoppers said they were just browsing the merchandise, reserving their cash for internet purchases. There was little evidence of the delirious shopper frenzy customary of Black Fridays from past years.

However, retail research firm ShopperTrak said store traffic fell less than 1 percent on Black Friday, bucking industry predictions of a sharper decline.

“There has been a significant amount of debate surrounding the shifting importance of brick-and-mortar retail,” Brian Field, ShopperTrak’s senior director of advisory services, said.

“The fact that shopper visits remained intact on Black Friday illustrates that physical retail is still highly relevant and when done right, it is profitable.”

The National Retail Federation (NRF), which had predicted strong holiday sales helped by rising consumer confidence, said on Friday that fair weather across much of the nation had also helped draw shoppers into stores.

The NRF, whose overall industry sales data is closely watched each year, is scheduled to release Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales numbers on Tuesday.

U.S. consumer confidence has been strengthening over this past year, due to a labor market that is churning out jobs, rising home prices and stock markets that are hovering at record highs.

(Reporting by Richa NaiduEditing by Marguerita Choy)

U.S. online sales surge, shoppers throng stores on Thanksgiving evening

U.S. online sales surge, shoppers throng stores on Thanksgiving evening

By Richa Naidu and Nandita Bose

(Reuters) – U.S. shoppers had splurged more than $1.52 billion online by Thanksgiving evening, and more bargain hunters turned up at stores this year after two weak holiday seasons as retailers opened their doors early on the eve of Black Friday.

At the start of the holiday season consumer spending rose 16.8 percent year-over-year until 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracked 80 percent of online transactions at the top 100 U.S. retailers.

Surging online sales and a shift away from store shopping have thinned the crowds typically seen at stores on Thanksgiving evening and the day after, Black Friday, for the past two years. But a strong labor market, rising home prices and stock markets at record highs have improved shopper appetite this year.

Crowds at stores in many locations around the country were reported to be strong, according to analysts and retail consultants monitoring shopper traffic across the U.S.

“The turnout is clearly better than the last couple of years,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. “The parking lots are full and the outlet malls are busy.”

The retail consultancy has 20 members studying customer traffic in different parts of the country.

Moody’s retail analyst Charlie O’ Shea, who was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, reported healthy traffic at local stores including consumer electronics chain Best Buy, clothing store Old Navy and retailer Kohl’s Corp.

“The weather is cooperating and people here are out,” he said.

The National Retail Federation is projecting that sales for November and December will rise 3.6 percent to 4 percent this year, versus a 4 percent increase last year. Non-store sales, which include online sales and those from kiosks, are expected to rise 11 percent-15 percent to about $140 billion.

In New Jersey, around 50 people lined up a Macy’s at the Westfield Garden State Plaza mall before it opened and around 200 people stood outside the Best Buy store, many to pick up their online orders.

“Me and my husband have a bigger place and we need a bigger TV for the living room,” said Jenipher Gomes, who bought a 50-inch Samsung TV at Best Buy for $399.99. Shopper Hammad Farooq said he waited at the store for an hour to shop for laptops and monitors.

In Chicago, shoppers appeared to be slightly less enthusiastic to emerge from their turkey slumber and crowds were thin along the city’s popular shopping destination, State Street.

“There’s a few more people than normal but I wouldn’t call this crowded at all,” Deloitte auditor Eugenia Liew said as she shopped at discount retailer Target. “I expected a lot more people.”

The holiday season spanning November and December is crucial for retailers because it can account for as much as 40 percent of annual sales. Retailers try to attract shoppers with deep discounts.

Average discounts ranged between 10 and 16 percent with the best deals online on Thanksgiving evening available for computers, sporting goods, apparel and video games, according to date from Adobe.

The number of customers shopping on their smartphones surged, accounting for 46 percent of the traffic on retail websites, while traffic from desktop and laptop computers declined 11 percent and nearly 6 percent respectively, according to the data.

(Reporting by Richa Naidu in Chicago and Nandita Bose in West Hartford, Connecticut; Additional reporting by Jenna Zucker in New Jersey; Editing by Susan Thomas)