Chewy shares surge 63% in debut as investors bank on booming pet market

(Reuters) - Shares of Chewy Inc soared 63% in their public debut, giving the online pet products retailer a market value of $14.35 billion, more than four times the price PetSmart paid for it in 2017.

The company’s shares opened at $36.00 and rose as high as $41.34, compared with the IPO price of $22.00. The stock was up 56% at $34.20 in afternoon trading in a weak broader market.

Indicating solid investor appetite for a piece of the over $70 billion U.S. pet market, the offering was priced higher than the expected range and parent PetSmart sold more shares than originally planned.

The company had set a price range of $19 to $21 per share, which was raised earlier this week from $17 to $19 per share.

Chewy raised $123.2 million from the offering and PetSmart, which is looking to pare its debt, will receive nearly $900 million.

The online retailer of puppy shampoo and cat treats, which has 11 million customers, is betting on the “pet humanization” trend where owners splurge on their pets, whom they consider part of the family.

Jay Ritter, an IPO expert and professor at the University of Florida, however, is skeptical whether Chewy’s valuation allows enough further upside potential for investors.

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“The stock has been volatile on its first day of trading,” Ritter told Reuters in an email. “I expect the stock to continue to be volatile.”

PetSmart, owned by private equity firm BC Partners, bought Chewy in 2017, a deal that added $2 billion to the company’s debt load.

Chewy said its revenue surged about 68% to $3.53 billion in 2018 from a year earlier, while net loss narrowed to $267.9 million from $338.1 million.

The company, which is yet to make a profit, in its IPO pitch also highlighted the industry’s resilience during downturns.

However, the market is turning fiercely competitive.

Dania Beach, Florida-based Chewy competes with traditional brick-and-mortar retailers such as Walmart Inc and Petco Animal Supplies Inc, as well as Amazon Inc and online seller PetMed Express Inc.

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Chewy holds a 45% share of the online dog and cat food market, matching Amazon’s share, according to research firm 1010data.

Last July, Chewy launched its pharmacy business, pushing into the lucrative prescription drugs market that has long been the turf of veterinarians and their partners.

“If (Chewy) can clear legal and registration hurdles, they’ll have no trouble competing out there,” said Phillip Cooper, an independent consultant who advises pet industry investors.

“Chewy has a tremendous following at the consumer level ... these guys know how many dogs people have, what their ages are and if you lose a dog they send a bouquet of flowers!”

The blockbuster IPO follows disappointing debuts of Uber Technologies and Lyft. Other IPOs of this year such as those of Pinterest Inc, vegan burger maker Beyond Meat Inc and video-conferencing startup Zoom Video Communications Inc have been trading higher.

PetSmart and BC Partners will retain control of Chewy through Class B shares, which carry more voting power.

Reporting by Manas Mishra and Tamara Mathias in Bengaluru; Additonal reporting by Bharath Manjesh; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila