Meal kit delivery should continue to thrive, but Blue Apron (APRN -10.18%) may not. After supermarket chain Albertson's announced it was buying rival Plated, it's probably (long past) time for Blue Apron to also seek a partner.
It hasn't been a good year for meal kit delivery leader Blue Apron. Despite owning 20% of the market, it's gone from hero to zero in no time flat. Its IPO was a mess thanks to Amazon.com (AMZN -2.33%) buying Whole Foods Market and the potential competition it represented; its earnings reports show rapidly decelerating revenue growth; and now rivals are either getting acquired or are entering into strategic partnerships.
It may be that despite the potential for industry growth, it could be a market that a stand-alone meal delivery company can't navigate by itself.
Don't be late for dinner
Market researchers at Technomic said last year that just in the U.S. alone, fresh food subscription services could be expected to grow tenfold over the next five years, while global revenues would exceed $10 billion by 2020. Digital Commerce 360 cites data from Magid Retail Pulse data that found 41% of millennials buy groceries online, and 23% of them don't go food shopping any other way.
It could grow even faster as more and bigger companies enter the field. Amazon, of course, is the elephant in the room as everyone watches to see if it jumps into the pond and makes a big splash. It's already soft-launched a Seattle-only test of a meal-kit delivery service, which because of a built-in customer base of Prime subscribers, could quickly gain market share if it chooses to take the offering national.
Consumer food and beverage companies are also partnering with meal kit services. Unilever (UL -0.34%) invested in Sun Basket, an organic food service; Campbell Soup, online grocer FreshDirect, and most recently Coca-Cola invested in or partnered with Chef'd, a delivery service that doesn't require a subscription; while beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev partnered with Canadian meal-kit service Chefs Plate.
In addition to Albertson's, others grocery store chains are also looking at the space. Kroger (KR -1.21%), for example, created a new meal kit line called Prep+Pared, which, while not available for delivery yet, is part of its grocery pick-up service, and Wal-Mart's (WMT -0.27%) acquisition of Jet.com indicated the importance it was placing on online grocery shopping.
The Albertson's deal for Plated is a direct threat to Blue Apron as they're both based in New York, but Plated will get immediate national scale as the supermarket chain operates 2,300 stores nationally.
Tie new apron strings
Blue Apron, for all of the criticism that's been heaped upon it since it went public, still has a lot to offer a partner. Beyond its industry-leading 20% share of the market, there are a lot of technology and data capabilities that would benefit a larger company that could then forego having to build a system from the ground up. In return, Blue Apron could, like Plated, get the kind of national presence it needs.
Costs have been rising for the meal kit service, and acquiring more customers has become more expensive. By agreeing to be acquired -- or at the very least partnering with a national chain -- Blue Apron could rein in those costs.
As the field becomes more crowded and competitive, it looks to be harder for a single player like Blue Apron to make it on its own. While some might argue that with its large swath of the market, it can continue to grow independently, but that will become increasingly difficult as its rivals themselves are among the biggest in the grocery business.
Blue Apron has dominated the niche up until now. It might be smart to consider exiting while it still has sufficient value attached to its brand.