The Federal Trade Commission has sued to block Procter & Gamble’s acquisition of Billie, a NY-based startup that sells razors and body wash.
In the notice, the FTC alleged that the merger would “eliminate innovative nascent competitors for wet shave razors” to the loss of consumers.
Billie was founded in 2017 with the goal of fighting the “pink tax” on goods marketed to women, including razors and body wash. It went up against companies like P&G and Edgewell Personal Care by offering high-quality and cheap razors. The company announced its intent to be acquired by P&G after raising just $35 million in venture capital in June.
“As its sales grew, Billie was likely to expand into brick-and-mortar stores, posing a serious threat to P&G. If P&G can snuff out Billie’s rapid competitive growth, consumers will likely face higher prices,” Ian Conner, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition said in a statement.
P&G has been on a buying spree as of late. Along with the Billie news, Procter & Gamble acquired Walker & Company, which created Bevel, a grooming line for men of color, and Form, a hair-care line for women of color. In February 2019, P&G announced plans to acquire This is L, a feminine-care brand that sells tampons, pads and wipes.
If the FTC wins, this is another blow for direct-to-consumer brands on the base of competition dynamics. In May 2019, Edgewell Personal Care announced it intended to buy Harry's, another direct-to-consumer shaving brand. In February 2020, the FTC filed a lawsuit to block the deal from happening, similarly citing how the deal would limit competition and innovation in the razor market.
Unlike Harry's, Billie was bought before it broke into brick-and-mortar retail stores. If the deal doesn’t close, Billie lost precious time it could have used to expand into new locations and markets -- and P&G will lose some of its competitive advantage in the women’s shaving world.
Harry's and Billie’s blocks could negatively trickle down to hurt direct-to-consumer products looking at health and wellness more broadly.
Note that exit market isn’t as dull for all companies in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) world. We've seen deals close like Blue Bunny's buy of Halo Top, Mars' acquisition of Kind Bars and, of course, Unilever's $1 billion acquisition of Dollar Shave Club.
Andrea Hernández, a founder and consultant on food and beverage CPG, says that DTC companies often need to partner with mega-businesses to get the distribution scale they need, focusing more on omni-channel presence versus a single seller point.
"It’s very limited for these companies to scale at the same level and grow without incurring debt or needing constant injections of [money]," she said. "Or [you can go] the preferred route which is having BigDaddyCorp come whisk you away. You get a success story and the resources to continue your journey."
That said, the coronavirus has even impacted food CPG companies by forcing them to slash SKUs (or stock keeping units) and prioritize essential goods. Whereas before, CPG companies might stock a variety of goods for a variety of customer needs, they're now prioritizing a smaller slice of the pie to manage uncertainty among consumer behavior. Long-term, this means that CPGs might be buying fewer of the Billies and Harry's of the world and just focusing on what's working now.
Selene Cruz, the founder of Restore which gives DTC brands an offline presence, said that she's a"bit surprised to see the FTC claiming the acquisition kills competition. Billie going into brick & mortar doesn't mean instant success enough to take on a major conglomerate."
"If the FTC's goal is to not kill competition then I'd advise them not to diminish exit prospects for investors and founders," Cruz added. "This would hurt investment in the space and that's the real fear for innovators."
Additionally, Clearbanc founder Michele Romanow said that "while this isn't at all ideal for Billie, it means other growing D2C brands have a better chance to build a strong brand and gives consumers more options."
Regardless of how this plays out, today's news shows that the FTC is paying more attention than ever to consumer and tech.