Five years ago, Blue Apron promised to bring innovation to an industry that had seen relatively little by providing people with kits for meals that they could cook at home. The company offered fresh ingredients from farms and producers that were pre-measured to ensure little was wasted. It was a business model that aimed to disrupt grocery chains and restaurants alike — “Our vision for the future is ambitious: to build a better food system” — and it appeared to find a fast following, generating more than 25 million paid orders.
Blue Apron grew so quickly that the company recently embarked on a plan to turn itself into a public company, offering separate classes of stock to allow the founders to keep control of their destiny.
Yet, last Friday, the IPO faced fresh uncertainty. Amazon.com announced a $13.7 billion deal to buy Whole Foods Market, just three days before Blue Apron released plans to price its shares between $15 and $17, and raise up to $586.5 million. For Blue Apron, the disrupter had suddenly become the disrupted, leaving investors to sort out its prospects in a shifting marketplace.
Blue Apron acknowledged as much in a cautionary note to potential buyers of its stock.
“Business combinations and consolidation in and across the industries in which we compete could further increase the competition we face and result in competitors with significantly greater resources and customer bases than us,” the company said in a filing on Monday, three days after Amazon’s move. (Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Analysts said Blue Apron’s biggest challenge is not Amazon’s sudden move into the bricks-and-mortar grocery business, but rather figuring out a sustainable business model that would allow the young company to scale fast.
“Food is a multitrillion-dollar market in the U.S. alone, and there has been very limited innovation in the sector for decades,”said Leslie Pfrang, partner of Class V Group, an IPO advisory firm. “You shouldn’t just assume that every innovator in the field is going to suffer, because it will take Amazon a while to innovate in the traditional grocery.”
While Blue Apron has seen revenue grow spectacularly in the past five years (from $77.8 million in 2014 to over $795 million in 2016), its losses have also grown, to $54.9 million in 2016 from $30.8 million two years earlier. For now, it seems satisfied to keep spending in pursuit of building its business.
“We anticipate that our operating expenses and capital expenditures will increase substantially in the foreseeable future as we continue to invest to increase our customer base and supplier network, expand our marketing channels, invest in our distribution and fulfillment infrastructure, hire additional employees and enhance our technology and infrastructure capabilities,” the company said in a filing.
Before Amazon’s announcement, Blue Apron planned to go public next week, trading stock under the ticker “APRN.”
“There’s probably going to be an overly negative reaction to the whole Amazon thing because they are competing for pretty much the same customers, although a couple of things kind of differentiate Blue Apron,” said Kurt Jetta, founder and chief executive of retail and consumer analytics firm Tabs Analytics.
One of those differentiators is that Blue Apron targets people interested in receiving meal kits for easy cooking while Amazon targets the grocery shoppers in general. Nonetheless, the smaller company might need to tweak its strategy for acquiring and retaining customers, analysts say.
“How frequently are people willing to get on this regime of constant deliveries of cooking?” Jetta asked. “The evidence isn’t great, because you need to keep people engaged weekly for years.”
Some analysts argue that the merger between Amazon and Whole Foods might actually give Blue Apron and others a boost.
“I do think that the disruption could accelerate adoption of other innovator changes in the way fresh food is bought and consumed at home and maybe help the whole industry,” Pfrang said.