General Mills Inc. (GIS) Q2 2019 Earnings Conference Call Transcript

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General Mills Inc. (NYSE: GIS)Q2 2019 Earnings Conference CallDec. 19, 2018, 8:30 a.m. ET

Contents:

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  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the Second Quarter Fiscal 2019 Earnings Conference Call. During the presentation, all participants will be in a listen-only mode. Afterwards, we will conduct a question and answer session. At that time, if you have a question, please press 14 on your telephone. If, at any time during the conference today, you need to reach an operator, please press *0. As a reminder, today's conference is being recorded, Wednesday, December 19th, 2018. I would now like to turn the conference over to Jeff Siemon, Vice President, Investor Relations. Please go ahead, sir.

Jeff Siemon -- Vice President, Investor Relations

Thanks, Jennifer, and good morning to everybody. I'm joined here this morning by Jeff Harmening, our Chairman and CEO, and Don Mulligan, our CFO. In addition, Jon Nudi, who leads North America Retail segment, is joining us for the Q&A portion of the call, and I'll turn the call over to them in a moment, but before I do, I'll cover a few housekeeping items.

Our press release on second-quarter results was issued over the wire services earlier this morning, and you can find a release and a copy of our slides that supplement our remarks this morning on the Investor Relations website. Please do note that our remarks this morning will include forward-looking statements that are based on management's current views and assumptions, and the second slide in today's presentation lists factors that could cause our future results to be different than our current estimates. With that, I'll turn you over to my colleagues, beginning with Jeff.

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Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Jeff, and good morning to everyone. I'll start this morning by offering some quick thoughts on our year-to-date performance. I'm pleased to say that our results through six months keep us on track to deliver our full-year targets. Our cost and capital discipline drove profit growth ahead of our expectations in the first half of our fiscal year. Our job to do for the second half is very clear, and that is to accelerate our sales growth in our North America Retail and Pet segments while we maintain our cost discipline, and we're confident in the plans we have to do just that. Now, I'll turn it over to Don Mulligan to walk through our financial performance in the quarter, then I'll come back to provide an update on our fiscal 2019 priorities and share a few highlights on our second-half plans.

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Jeff, and good morning, everyone. Let's jump right in to our second-quarter financial results on Slide 5. Net sales of $4.4 billion increased 7% in constant currency, including contributions from the Blue Buffalo acquisition. Organic net sales declined 1%. Strong cost discipline and positive net price realization and mix helped drive margin expansion, resulting in adjusted operating profits of $765 million, up 8% in constant currency, and adjusted diluted EPS of $0.85 increased 2% in constant currency, driven by higher adjusted operating profit and a lower effective tax rate, partially offset by higher net interest expense and higher average diluted shares outstanding in the quarter.

Slide 6 shows the components of net sales growth in the quarter. Organic net sales were down 1%, driven by lower contributions from pound volume, partially offset by positive net price realization and mix across all segments. Foreign currency translation resulted in a two-point headwind to net sales, and Blue Buffalo added eight points to net sales.

Turning to our segment results on Slide 7, North America Retail net sales were down 3% as reported and on an organic base. Consumer takeaway was stronger, with U.S. Nielsen measured retail sales down 1% and share gains in the majority of our top U.S. categories. Through six months, our shipments have lagged consumer takeaway by about one point, with organic net sales down 2% and U.S. retail sales down 1%. The main drivers of that difference were the comparisons against last year's results that included co-packing sales related to the Green Giant divestiture, changes in customer inventory levels, and minor differences in the phasing of trade between the first and second halves. Looking ahead to the rest of the year, we expect our shipments to track more closely to consumer takeaway.

Looking at operating profit performance, reported net sales in U.S. meals and baking were down 2% due to declines on Progresso soup and Betty Crocker desserts and the elimination of Green Giant co-packing sales. These declines were partially offset by strong performance on Totino's hot snacks, Old El Paso, and renovation news on Annie's mac and cheese. Canada net sales were down 7% as reported and 3% in constant currency. U.S. yogurt net sales decreased 4% as declines on Greek and Light segments were partially offset by growth on Oui by Yoplait and YQ as well as improved performance on Gogurt and Original Style Yoplait.

U.S. snacks net sales were down 4%, driven primarily by lower-than-expected merchandising levels on grain bars, partially offset by good performance on Annie's fruit snacks and Larabar. Net sales for U.S. cereal were down 5% due to lower merchandising levels and the comparison against 7% growth in the same period last year, partially offset by growth on Trix and Lucky Charms. Constant currency segment operating profit matched year-ago levels as cost of goods HMM savings, positive net price realization and mix, and lower SG&A expenses offset lower volume and input cost inflation.

In convenience stores and food service, second-quarter organic net sales were flat versus prior year. Our Focus 6 platforms generated 2% net sales growth, led by strong performance on cinnamon rolls in restaurants, pouch breakfasts and bowl-pack cereals in K-12 schools, and Chex Mix salty snacks in convenience stores, offset by declines on bakery flour and other non-Focus 6 platforms. Segment operating profit increased 3% in the quarter, driven by positive price mix and COGS HMM savings, partially offset by higher input costs.

Second-quarter organic net sales for Europe and Australia segment matched year-ago levels, driven by growth on snack bars, ice cream, and Mexican, three of our Accelerate platforms, offset by declines in yogurt. Second-quarter net sales were also impacted by the challenging retail environment in France.

We drove double-digit retail sales growth on Nature Valley and FiberOne snack bars by continuing to secure distribution gains, invest in effective marketing, and bring successful innovation to market. On Häagen-Dazs, retail sales also grew double digits as we continue to expand distribution with stick bar, mini cup, and pint innovations, and as we execute local brand activations to drive trial. And, we're encouraged by our improved performance on Old El Paso, driven by new products such as our gluten-free tortilla kits as well as effective omnichannel consumer support.

Segment operating profit in Europe and Australia was $22 million compared to $27 million a year ago, driven by higher input cost, specifically significant dairy inflation and currency-driven inflation on products imported into the U.K., partially offset by positive sales mix and lower SG&A.

In our Asia and Latin America segment, organic net sales increased 5% in the second quarter, with strong growth on our global Accelerate platforms and on Wanchai Ferry in China. We drove strong double-digit growth on snacks in India and the Middle East as we continue to expand distribution on Pillsbury cookie cakes and Betty Crocker mug treats, and our Nature Valley and Yoki brands performed well in Latin America behind effective consumer news and successful in-store executions.

Häagen-Dazs continues to grow across Asia behind consumer activations and new channel development, including significant growth in e-commerce and distribution expansion in new Häagen-Dazs shops. In China, our Wanchai Ferry business delivered another quarter of growth, driven by dumpling innovation and strong in-store executions. Segment operating profit of $18 million was down 6% in constant currency, driven primarily by higher input cost and higher SG&A expenses, partially offset by positive price mix.

For our Pet segment, second-quarter net sales were down 7% on a pro forma basis, reflecting the comparison to 25% pro forma growth in last year's second quarter. When Blue first expanded into the food, drug, and mass -- or FDM -- channels, Blue's consumer pull remained strong, with year-to-date retail sales up 9%, in line with Blue's two-year compound growth rate for pro forma net sales. Segment operating profit of $71 million was $18 million below the prior year on a pro forma basis, driven by lower volume, significant input cost inflation, planned start-up costs, and intangible amortization, partially offset by cost savings and benefits from positive price mix. In a moment, Jeff will outline our second-half expansion plans for Blue Buffalo, which will drive Blue to our full-year targets of double-digit top- and bottom-line growth.

Slide 12 covers our margin results in the second quarter. Adjusted gross margin increased 10 basis points and adjusted operating profit margin was up 40 basis points over the prior year. Margin expansion was driven by increased HMM savings, benefits from positive net price realization and mix, the addition of Blue Buffalo, and tight control of our costs, partially offset by higher input costs.

Slide 13 summarizes our joint venture results in the quarter. Cereal partners worldwide net sales increased 2% in constant currency due to strong performance in our Asia, Middle East, and Africa as well as Europe regions, partially offset by declines in Latin America. Häagen-Dazs Japan sales were up 1% in constant currency, driven primarily by growth on core mini cups and multipack offerings. Combined after-tax earnings from joint ventures totaled $22 million in the quarter compared to $24 million a year ago, driven by higher input costs.

Slide 14 summarizes our other noteworthy income statement items. Restructuring, impairment, and other exit costs totaled $209 million, including $193 million of impairment charges related to the Progresso, Food Should Taste Good, and Mountain High brand intangible assets. Corporate unallocated expenses excluding certain items affecting comparability increased by $13 million in the quarter. Net interest expense increased $58 million, driven primarily by financing related to the Blue Buffalo acquisition. We continue to expect net interest expense to total approximately $550 million for the full year.

Adjusted effective tax rate for the quarter was 23.8% compared to 29.3% a year ago, driven by net benefits related to U.S. tax reform. We continue to expect our full-year adjusted ETR will be in the range of 23-24%, and average diluted shares outstanding were up 4% in the quarter.

Slide 15 provides our first-half balance sheet and cash flow highlights. As of the second quarter, our core working capital stands at $532 million, down 5% compared to the same period last year, as benefits from our terms extension program were partially offset by the addition of Blue Buffalo to our balance sheet. First-half operating cash flow totaled $1.4 billion compared to $1.6 billion in the prior year, primarily reflecting less benefit from changes in accounts payable. Year-to-date capital investments totaled $254 million. For the full year, we now expect capital investments to be approximately 3.5% of net sales. We converted 120% of adjusted after-tax earnings into free cash flow through six months, and we returned $589 million to shareholders through dividends in the first half of fiscal '19.

I'll close my portion of our remarks by summarizing our year-to-date financial results and reaffirming our full-year targets on sales, profit, EPS, and cash flow, as shown on Slide 16. First-half net sales increased 8% in constant currency. We expect net sales to accelerate to 9-10% constant currency growth for the full year, driven primarily by acceleration on Blue Buffalo. Organic net sales essentially matched year-ago levels through six months. Our full-year expectations of organic growth remain between flat and up 1%. Year-to-date adjusted operating profit increased 5% in constant currency. These results include a four-point headwind from the onetime purchase accounting adjustment related to the Blue Buffalo acquisition. We continue to estimate constant currency adjusted operating profit will increase 6-9% in fiscal '19, including a two-point full-year headwind from the purchase accounting adjustment.

First-half adjusted diluted EPS was up 1% on a constant currency basis despite a five-point headwind from the onetime purchase accounting adjustment. These results were ahead of our full-year guidance for constant currency adjusted diluted EPS, which is a range between flat and down 3%, including a two-point full-year headwind from the purchase accounting adjustment. We now expect currency translation will be a one- to two-point headwind to full-year net sales, but won't have a material impact on operating profit or EPS, and as I mentioned, our first-half free cash flow conversion was 120%, ahead of our full-year target of 95% or better. With that, let me turn it back over to Jeff to provide an update on our fiscal '19 priorities and outline our key deliverables for the back half of the year. Jeff?

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Don. And, on Slide 18, you can see the three key priorities we laid out at the beginning of our fiscal year: Grow the core, successfully transition Blue Buffalo, and deliver our financial commitments. Let me share our progress on each of these priorities through the first half of our year.

At our Investor Day in July, we outlined five keys to growing the core, and I'm pleased to say that through six months, we've improved in each of these five areas relative to fiscal 2018. We returned to market share growth in U.S. yogurt, year-to-date organic net sales in our emerging markets were up high single digits, we were seeing good results from our first-half innovation, and our U.S. distribution trends have improved, and we grew our share of distribution in the second quarter.

And, we're seeing a step up in contributions from organic, price, and mix, from one point in fiscal 2018 to two points through the first half of 2019. Through the first half of this year, price mix has contributed to net sales growth across each of our reporting segments. In North America Retail, price mix contributed two points of sales growth, which is in line with the results we're seeing in the broader industry. In fact, eight of the top 10 U.S. food and beverage manufacturers have generated positive price mix this year, including General Mills. We anticipate the strategic revenue management actions we implemented in the first half will continue to benefit our results as we move to the second half.

We're competing well across most categories this year, as measured by our market share performance. On Slide 20, you can see that we grew share in six of our nine largest U.S. categories in the first half. However, we know there's still work to do, including in cereal and snack bars, our top two categories. We have plans in place to improve our performance in these businesses in the back half of the year. With this as a backdrop, let me share some specific examples of our year-to-date performance against our "Grow the core" priority for our key platforms around the world.

Our first-half results in cereal were mixed across channels and geographies. In U.S. retail, positive contributions from strong innovation, including Cheerios Oat Crunch, Maple Cheerios, and Lucky Charms Frosted Flakes were outweighed by reduced merchandising activity. Second-quarter cereal merchandise volume was down 7% as we focused on implementing pricing and pack changes at the shelf early in the quarter. With those changes behind us, we were able to get back to more typical merchandising levels by the end of the quarter, helping drive November cereal retail sales in line with last year, and we're confident we can improve on our first-half cereal performance as we rebalance our merchandising levels in the second half. In convenience stores and food service, we continue to drive low single-digit cereal net sales growth, led by good performance in our K-12 schools and colleges and universities.

I'm happy to report that our U.S. yogurt business is growing share for the second consecutive quarter, driven by excellent performance on Oui by Yoplait and on Gogurt. We continue to impress, with retail sales up double digits through the first half, led by core SKUs and innovations such as Oui Petite. In fact, Oui by Yoplait has grown to a two-share, making it our largest business within the yogurt category behind Original Style Yogurt and Gogurt, and helping us to build a leadership position in the fast-growing Simply Better yogurt segment. On Gogurt, great equity flavor additions like Sour Patch Kids drove 3% retail sales growth so far this year. It's also worth noting that our Original Style Yogurt business stabilized in the first half of the year behind more real fruit product news and solid in-store execution.

Outside of our core global platforms, we like the way we're competing in a number of regional businesses this year. In the U.S., our Pillsbury refrigerated baked goods were off to a strong start as we enter key baking season, with retail sales up 2% year to date and 3% in the latest quarter, fueled by our Made at Home media campaign, strong innovation, and in-store display. Totino's hot snacks grew retail sales 6%, driven by solid marketing and our expansion of value-sized offerings. And, we continue to generate excellent growth on Wanchai Ferry in China, with retail sales up high single digits through the first half of the year. New flavors in the dumpling line, such as cucumber, have created excitement on the core business, and our Superior Taste campaign continues to resonate with consumers.

The second component of growing the core in fiscal '19 is increasing growth on our four global Accelerate platforms. Global retail sales for Old El Paso were up 2% in the first half, led by the U.S., where retail sales were up 6% to date and 7% in the most recent quarter, driven by distribution gains and consumer investment. Our innovation in Hint of Lime stand-and-stuff taco shells continues to drive variety for taco night for consumers, and we're bringing back our highly successful in-store Old El Paso taco stand displays in the second half of the fiscal year.

Our natural and organic brands are incredibly relevant with consumers today. While our aggregate retail sales are being slowed by the exit of some unsuccessful category expansion volume, we're seeing excellent results as we increase our focus and support behind our core products. We love the results on Annie's mac and cheese, we've renovated our classic SKUs, and increased our support behind the business, resulting in double-digit gains in distribution and in retail sales. Annie's is now the No. 1 boxed mac and cheese in a number of accounts, including Whole Foods and Target.

We're driving solid performance on Annie's fruit snacks and pancake mixes as well, and we see more opportunities to grow our core natural and organic products. For example, we recently updated our packaging on Muir Glen product line, which celebrates the brand's star ingredient, the tomato, and gives a nod to Muir Glen's California heritage.

Global snack bar growth took a step back in the second quarter, with year-to-date retail sales down 1%. We're seeing two different stories between our international and North American bars business. International bar's growth continues as strong double-digit sales rates. Europe and Australia is driving retail sales growth with strong in-store execution and distribution gains on Nature Valley Protein FiberOne Brownie. Contributions from innovation remain strong behind nut butter biscuit line extensions and FiberOne Popcorn. In our Asia and Latin America segment, the investments we have made in India in distribution expansion, innovation, and consumer engagement are paying off for us. We're building on the success of Pillsbury-branded cookies and pastry cakes by expanding into new flavors and formats.

In the U.S., our bars results have underperformed our expectations through the first half of the year. Nature Valley performance weakened in the second quarter, driven by lower merchandising support and customer inventory reductions. We have plans in place to increase merchandising frequency the second half. Our FiberOne bars performance in the U.S. has remained challenged. We expect continuous decline in the near term as we cycle through distribution losses. Looking further ahead, we see an opportunity to renovate the FiberOne product line and make it more relevant, and we'll share more as those plans get closer to completion.

On the positive side in bars, Larabar retail sales continue to grow double digits in the first half behind expanded distribution, innovation, and brand support. ProteinOne, while small, is showing early signs of success, and you'll see a new ProteinOne social media campaign launched in January featuring celebrity Mindy Kaling. And, retail sales for EPIC are growing double digits, driven by the core meat bar SKUs in snacks as well as the new EPIC Performance bar we launched this summer.

On Häagen-Dazs, our final Accelerate platform, first-half retail sales were up 13%, led by double-digit growth in Europe behind mini cup expansion in the U.K. and peanut butter innovation in both pints and sticks. Retail sales in Asia grew low single digits due to continuous success on innovation and strong consumer activations. We delivered broad-based market share growth across our Asia Häagen-Dazs countries.

As we shift our focus to the second half, we're looking to improve our top-line trends in a few different and specific areas, most notably in U.S. cereal and snacks. Our second-half plans call for stronger merchandising support on these businesses, with a focus on greater frequency as opposed to depth of promotion. We have a really good slate of second-half consumer news, events, and partnerships with equities like Pokémon and Avengers, and we like our back-half innovation lineup, including Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cheerios, Fruity Lucky Charms, and Nature Valley Snack Mix. And, we've addressed some capacity issues, which constrained growth on both cereal and snacks in the first half. In total, these initiatives will set us up to deliver improved growth on our U.S. cereal and snacks businesses in the second half.

Now, let's move to our second priority this year: Successfully transitioning Blue Buffalo into the General Mills family. We feel good about the progress we're making here, and we continue to see tremendous long-term growth for the Blue Brand. Still, I'm sure many of you have questions about Blue's sales performance this quarter. As we said on the first-quarter call, we expect the timing of channel expansion will continue to drive significant variability in our quarterly net sales results. In the first half, our net sales results lagged consumer takeaway. We'll see this reverse in the second half, specifically in the fourth quarter, when we take another big step in our food, drug, and mass expansion.

Amid this variability, we think the right measure to track is Blue's in-market performance, and I can confidently say that on this measure, Blue continues to succeed. First-half retail sales were up 9% and market share was up 40 basis points across all channels. Blue's expanded availability is helping reach more pet parents with household penetration up 26% this calendar year to date. Blue is the fastest-growing pet brand in food, drug, and mass, and has become the No. 1 branded dog food in a few leading food, drug, and mass retailers. And, Blue remains the No. 1 brand in pet specialty and the No. 1 pet food brand online.

On Slide 28, you can see how Blue's 9% retail sales growth breaks down by channel. While we haven't added any new significant food, drug, and mass accounts in recent months, we're still seeing strong performance in the accounts that have carried Blue for more than a year, with progressive share gains each quarter. Blue retail sales across all food, drug, and mass channels increased by triple digits versus last year's first half.

Blue continues to see double-digit retail sales declines in the pet specialty channel, in line with our expectations. We will keep engaging with this important channel and bringing product variety, unique innovation, and consumer education that helps ensure pet specialty remains special. And, Blue continues to grow and gain share in the important e-commerce channel, which makes up roughly 25% of Blue's net sales. First-half retail sales in e-commerce grew 30%, and we expect continued strong growth as we move into the second half of the year.

Our second-half plans for Blue Buffalo will strengthen both top- and bottom-line growth for the business. On the top line, we'll launch Blue into new food, drug, and mass customers in the back half that will double our ACV distribution by the end of the fiscal year. In addition, we'll expand the variety of Blue product offerings available in the food, drug, and mass channels, which will accelerate growth even further. These actions will begin in February, which falls in Blue's fourth quarter. We expect Blue Buffalo's third-quarter net sales results will improve over Q2, though they will likely continue to lag our retail sales trends.

In addition to top-line acceleration, we also have significant actions under way that will improve our profit margins in the back half. For example, we expect to deliver increased HMM savings, including benefits from a new distribution center that opened last month. We'll see our synergy savings ramp up, we'll benefit from strategic revenue management actions we've implemented recently, and we'll see a more profitable mix of business with a greater proportion of food, drug, and mass sales in the higher-margin wet and treats segments. These second-half plans keep us on track to deliver double-digit top- and bottom-line growth for Blue Buffalo, as we outlined at the beginning of the year.

Shifting gears to our third priority, delivering on our financial commitments, you've heard a number of these themes throughout today's presentation. We're generating increased COGS HMM savings this year, including benefits from our global sourcing efforts. Our efforts on strategic revenue management are paying off, driving price mix contributions ahead of last year, and we're exhibiting strong discipline on our cost and capital, resulting in second-quarter margin expansion, lower capital spending, and reductions in our core working capital balances.

While we feel good about the progress we've made against our fiscal 2019 priorities, we know that there's still work to do to ensure that we deliver a successful year. Slide 31 summarizes the three most critical jobs to be done in the second half. First, we will improve our top-line performance in North America retail. I already mentioned the plans we have to strengthen U.S. cereal and snacks results. We'll also see benefits from areas that have been working so far this year, including strong innovation, increased price mix from strategic revenue management actions we implemented in the first half, and continued improvement on U.S. distribution trends.

Second, we'll execute our food, drug, and mass expansion for Blue Buffalo, which will keep us on track to deliver double-digit net sales and operating profit growth for the business, excluding acquisition-related charges. And third, we will continue to maintain our strong cost and cash discipline, driving increased benefits from HMM, continuing our spending discipline and SG&A and capital expenditures, and realizing further improvements in core working capital.

I'll close by summarizing today's key messages. Our first-half results keep us on track to deliver all of our full-year targets. Good cost control drove first-half profit results ahead of our expectations. We have clear plans for the second half to improve top-line trends in North America retail and to significantly expand Blue Buffalo availability while maintaining our cost and capital discipline. With that, let's open the line up for questions. Operator, can you please give us the first question?

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to register a question, kindly press 14 on your telephone. You will hear a three-tone prompt to acknowledge your request. If your question has been answered and you would like to withdraw your registration, please press 13, and if you're using a speakerphone, please lift your handset before entering your request. Again, ladies and gentlemen, if you'd like to register a question, kindly press 14 on your telephone keypad. Our first question comes from the line of Ken Goldman with J.P. Morgan. Please proceed with your question.

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan Chase -- Managing Director

Hi, good morning, everyone. Thank you.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning, Ken.

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan Chase -- Managing Director

If I could ask one on Blue Buffalo and then one on costs -- when Buff first went into the FDM channel, there was obviously some blowback from legacy customers as expected, but now you're adding some more varieties into FDM. Could you talk a little bit about what that means, or are you adding Wilderness? Can you talk about what you're modeling in terms of additional negative reactions from legacy customers as you do add these varieties? I just want to get a little more sense of what actually the products are going and where those products are going.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks for the question, Ken. I'll give you some level of specificity, but maybe not all the way to what you seek. What I would say is that in terms of varieties, we do plan a significant expansion of varieties, and one of the things I'm most pleased with is that given the success we've had in food, drug, and mass so far, we'll see a lot of variety expansion and it'll be highly incremental to what we currently have, and I think that speaks to the strength of the Blue Buffalo brand in FDM and the success that we've had in rolling it out, not only in terms of distribution and growth, but actually maintaining and even growing the sales in places where we have it. I think that's probably the most important takeaway.

In terms of pet specialty, we've declined double digits, and look: We're not happy with that long-term trajectory. On the other hand, it's what we modeled would happen, so it's kind of in line with our expectations. We're dedicated to the pet specialty channel for the long term, and what's interesting is that in some pet specialty customers that have continued to feature Blue, and have distribution, and go with our innovation and promotion plans, their categories are actually doing better than those that haven't, and so, we think -- which is not a surprise given that Blue Buffalo is two times the next largest brand in that channel.

And so, we think -- we haven't modeled our pet specialty business to increase for the rest of the year, but we're certainly hopeful over time that it can, and we know what it'll take. It'll take really good innovation, it'll take partnering with our accounts to keep the in-store experience what it always has been, which is one of the points, I think, of competitive advantage, and good promotion plans. And so, we haven't counted on our performance improving in pet specialty, but we're certainly dedicated to the channel and we're optimistic that we can actually turn that performance around over time.

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan Chase -- Managing Director

Okay, thank you for that. And then, my follow-up is -- a few quarters ago, I think it's fair to say Mills ran into some bumps regarding cost visibility, especially on the transportation and logistics side. Can you walk us through a little bit which improvements you've made toward improving this visibility? One of the things I hear from some people is that they sort of got burned that quarter a little bit, and they're just a little bit nervous about being confident in your cost visibility there. And then, along those lines, are you seeing any easing in your freight expenses ahead? We've seen spot transport rates peak -- at least, temporarily -- and oil prices are certainly down, so any color there would be helpful.

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

Sure, Ken. This is Don. You're exactly right. We ran into a bump. We didn't have the visibility we needed. We made some changes from a systems and a process and an information flow standpoint internally to make sure that we are getting the sufficiently granular-level look at what the costs are, and also, we made sure we were talking about what were the drivers -- not just what were the numbers -- what were the drivers, so we had a better sense of how they could evolve over time and what the range of potential outcomes were.

And, the combinations of those things has given us much greater visibility into our cost structure, and it's one of the reasons that it's allowed us to overperform on the bottom line. We came ahead of our plan in the first quarter, we essentially matched our plan in the second quarter, so we're exiting the first half slightly ahead on the bottom line, and I think all the work that we did on the systems and the process and the information flow has paid dividends and helped support that.

As far as inflation, we're still expecting 5% across the company for the full year, same as we guided. There obviously has been some movement up and down over the course of the year with tariffs, harvests, and so forth, but in total, we're still at 5%. And, as far as logistics and our freight costs in particular, we still see those being up double digits. As we talked in some detail last year, we do annual contracts that are tied to our fiscal year, and that contract this year reflected the higher in-market costs, which, again, we expect to see throughout the balance of our fiscal.

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan Chase -- Managing Director

Great. Thanks, Don.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Chris Growe of Stifel. Please proceed with your question.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Hi, Chris.

Chris Growe -- Stifel Financial -- Analyst

Hi, good morning. I just had a couple questions for you here, if I could. I did want to ask -- you had a number of factors that aided your gross margin performance for the quarter. It's better than what I expected as well. I just was curious: Did pricing -- and, I guess your overall SRM initiatives -- did those get to a point where they overcame cost inflation in the quarter -- that is, your pricing mix and promo? And then, I'm just curious with the promotional spending variation in the business -- I'm thinking of U.S. cereal -- did that flatter the gross margin, but obviously it could have hurt sales, and will that reverse in the second half of the year?

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

Well, yes. So, year to date -- well, I'll focus on the second quarter. Operating margins were about 40 basis points ahead of last year, gross margins were about 10 points ahead of last year, and there were really three key contributors. One, obviously, was the addition of Blue Buffalo, which is a higher-margin business, both on the gross-margin and operating-margin level. We talked about tight cost controls, and that was in the plants, it was in our administrative functions, and that was a benefit to the operating profit, but also to the gross margin.

And then, HMM and price mix together more than offset our input cost inflation, and those three -- Blue Buffalo, the ongoing cost controls, and HMM price versus inflation -- contributed in equal measure to our overperformance and our growth in operating margin in the second quarter. Obviously, there was some offset from lower volume in the deleverage that we saw there, but those are the three primary drivers of the improved performance, and they were about in equal measure. And so, we are seeing the benefits of our SRM activities come through.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

And, the second part of your question, Chris, is also important. As we think about the second half of the year and price and mix, we realized about 2% price mix in the first half, and importantly, we realized it across all segments, so I think that's important. And, we see continued benefits from price mix in the second half of the year, and I suppose if you're listening and you're hearing us talk about needing to make sure our merchandising on cereal and snacks is a little more competitive, you might wonder if that means we're going to take a margin hit in the second half or can we generate pricing, and the answer is we're talking about two specific categories. The rest of our pricing is in good shape. For the rest of the company, we feel like we've got good pricing plans in place.

On top of that, something you might not think about -- but certainly, we do -- is that on an enterprise level, to the extent that we grow Blue Buffalo double digits in the back half, which we have a great line of sight to doing, and we pick up our growth on cereal and snacks, there is a net price mix at the enterprise level even without taking pricing because the price per pound that we get from pet and from cereal and from snacks -- as well as actually some of the other Accelerate categories like Häagen-Dazs and Old El Paso -- they're better than the company average. And so, as we look at the back half of the year, we see an ability to continue to generate price and mix in the marketplace.

Chris Growe -- Stifel Financial -- Analyst

Okay, thank you. That's helpful. I just had one quick follow-up for you on cereal. You gave the consumption data by month -- negative three, negative two, and cereal got better throughout the quarter. Your cereal sales were down five. Obviously, there's a bit of a gap there, and I'm sure that's driven by the promotional cadence. Are inventories -- do they have to rebuild, or are they at the right level here from this point going forward?

Jonathon J. Nudi -- Group President, North America Retail

Hey, Chris. It's Jon. One of the things to keep in mind -- last year in Q2, cereal R&S was up 7%, so again, we've got a tough comp there. Overall, we bled some inventory through the first half across U.S. retail, and cereal was a part of that, and we expect as we move through the back half of the year that that won't be as big of a headwind. So again, we think the comps get better for us, merchandising will come back, and we believe we'll have a much stronger back half from a cereal standpoint.

Chris Growe -- Stifel Financial -- Analyst

Okay, thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Robert Moskow with Credit Suisse. Please proceed with your question.

Robert Moskow -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Hi, thanks. I guess I have two questions. One is on Blue Buffalo. Sales in second quarter were lower sequentially than first, and I guess that's the result of things getting a little weaker in the specialty channel. Is that a fair assessment? And then, secondly, when you launch it in this big retailer and double the ACV, how comfortable are you that these are completely incremental sales? There must be pet consumers who are going to shift their channel shopping from one channel to the other. What's the algorithm on that in terms of incrementality that you've seen historically? And then, the last part about that incremental question, I guess, is you talked about wet and treats. Is Blue really good at wet dog food? Is it really good at pet treats? What's the durability of these types of extensions? Those areas aren't exactly what consumers are familiar with from the core Blue. Thanks.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Hey, Rob. This is Jeff. You asked a number of questions, and let me make sure I hit -- if I don't hit all of them, it's not because I'm trying to avoid it, I just forgot one, so let me try to hit them sequentially. In terms of the second quarter, the slowdown in reported net sales -- it actually isn't fair to say that it was a slowdown in pet specialty. Our pet specialty declines were pretty much the same year over year. It really is a matter of our comparisons to a year ago and inventory build.

The way I like to think of it -- in the second quarter of this year, we're comparing to 25% growth last year, we declined 7% this year, so over a couple-year period, that's about 9% compound annual growth. If you look at our takeaway and retail sales, it's about 9% compound annual growth. So really, the deceleration in R&S has nothing to do with takeaway, nothing to do with a further decline in pet specialty. It has everything to do with lumpiness of R&S as it relates to inventory build. We will see that reverse completely -- in fact, we will see it reverse completely and then some in the back half of the year, specifically in the fourth quarter, starting in February, as we build inventory ahead of our new distribution gains.

In terms of incrementality, one of the reasons why I mentioned household penetration is because -- there are a lot of numbers I could throw out about incrementality, and we've done a lot of studies, and what we've found is that our launch into food, drug, and mass has been highly incremental for the Blue Buffalo brand.

But, one of the measures is household penetration, and one of the things that I'm most pleased with is our household penetration is up 26% as opposed to our retail sales being up 9%, and as we've launched into these other channels, it's really good to see our household penetration expand because that says all of the gains are not coming out of our current business and not just trading out what we've done in pet specialty or online, but the brand continues to grow, continues to gain new consumers. We saw the same kind of phenomenon with Annie's, we've seen it with Larabar, we've seen it with EPIC, and when you can get household penetration increasing ahead of your consumption, it actually portends really good things.

Your last question is about wet and treats, and right now, Blue Buffalo under-indexes on wet and treats, and I think it's a huge opportunity for us. For treats, that's just pet food speak for snacking, and we see snacking trends in human food, and we see it in pet the same way, and one of the things when we bought Blue Buffalo we were excited about was that the humanization of pet food -- we see the same kind of trends that we do in human food, and so, we feel like we've got good visibility to where the consumers' minds are, and we think the treats business is going to continue to grow, and we under-index, and we think it's a huge opportunity, and we're pleased to see that it's growing. And the nice thing is as we grow that differentially, we'll see improved margins because the margins on those businesses tend to be better.

Robert Moskow -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Got it. All right. Well, I guess the question that I had about sequential is because I don't see a lot of seasonality in the business in pet food. Pet owners just keep feeding their dogs the same amount every time, so that's why I was looking at the sequential growth coming down. So, is there any reason to believe that that's not the right way to look at it? Why would seasonality matter?

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Seasonality really doesn't matter much. You're right -- pets tend to eat about the same amount every day. It really has to do -- I think the most important point, Rob, as the takeaway is this building of inventory and how it looks quarter to quarter, and that's why I get back to the retail consumption as being the main driver, because I'm going to tell you -- our fourth quarter is going to be really high, and it's going to look really good for Blue Buffalo, and it will be good, but we have to keep -- but, the key is really making sure we have the underlying consumption in mind.

Jeff Siemon -- Vice President, Investor Relations

Rob, this is Jeff Siemon. I would just mention Q1 of a year ago for Blue Buffalo, net sales grew in the low teens, maybe close to 15%. Q2, it moved up to 25%. So, that's why you see -- this year, the deceleration is really the acceleration you saw last year in the comp driven by the food, drug, and mass launch. Q3 last year was about 15% growth in net sales and Q4 was only up low single digits, so again, you saw a lot of variability last year. As we comp that this year, that will have variability, and then, as Jeff said, our Q4 -- as we expand food, drug, and mass, you'll see a big acceleration.

Robert Moskow -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Okay, thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Jason English with Goldman Sachs. Please proceed with your question.

Jason English -- Goldman Sachs -- Managing Director

Hey, good morning, folks. Thank you for letting me ask a question. I want to come back to margins and ladder into the U.S. retail segment. First, going back to gross margins, just to make sure I've got the numbers right, we've got Buff adding maybe 80 bps or so, so underlying, we're looking at down 70 bps, which looks like the math would suggest just the volume leverage. Is that roughly right?

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

Buffalo was probably a little less than that in the quarter. It'll be in that neighborhood for the full year -- even a little higher for the full year -- as we alluded to when we announced the deal, but in the second quarter, it was a little less than that, just given the fact that we had some of the volume deleverage and the inflation and plant start-up cost in the number.

Jason English -- Goldman Sachs -- Managing Director

Got it.

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

But, you're directionally correct. Pet added, and the base business was slightly down on a gross margin basis year over year.

Jason English -- Goldman Sachs -- Managing Director

So, it's not surprising to see the base business down a bit. Clearly, it's sequentially getting better, which is the right trajectory. I was surprised that you still had -- with base's gross margins down -- you still had as much margin leverage in North American Retail. Can you help me understand some of the drivers? I guess where I'm also going to is is this another quarter where you pull back a lot on A&P, and if so, is there -- do you see any parallels with the sequentially eroding volume trend for the fourth quarter in a row now with the consistent pullback on A&P?

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

No, what we saw in U.S. retail -- or, NAR -- was the same trend we saw from a total-company standpoint. We had strong HMM, we had price mix benefit coming through, we had really strong cost control in our plant, so our manufacturing costs came in very tight, and those combine to deliver a better profitability at the bottom line than sales.

Jason English -- Goldman Sachs -- Managing Director

So, it's not just marketing-related, then? It's core underlying? Is that the message?

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

It is. It really is a matter, Jason, of price mix and HMM exceeding inflation. I think you see that because in our second quarter, it was our merchandising results that really lagged our expectations. What we saw with everyday price was actually at or above our expectations, and that's the best margin. And so, from a margin standpoint, we're really pleased with what we're selling at an everyday price, and what we merchandised was really the cause for our sales being a little below what we had anticipated, which has a pretty good margin impact.

Jonathon J. Nudi -- Group President, North America Retail

Just to build on what Jeff laid out, our baselines through the first half were flat in North American Retail, which we feel really good about. It was really merchandising which was all of our declines, primarily in cereal and snacks, so we feel like our total commercial investment is in a really good place, we feel like our innovation is really working, our marketing is strong, and the base business is performing. We clearly had some execution issues, particularly on cereal and snacks merchandising, and we've got plans in place to fix that. And, you saw in November, cereal got better as we got our merchandising more in line, so we've got good confidence that we can accelerate the top line and, at the same time, continue to drive good margins in the back half.

Jason English -- Goldman Sachs -- Managing Director

Good stuff. Thanks, guys. I'll pass it on.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Okay, thanks.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Pablo Zuanic with SIG. Please proceed with your question. Mr. Zuanic, your line is open. Please go ahead.

Pablo Zuanic -- Susquehanna International Group -- Analyst

Thank you. Good morning, everyone. Two questions on pet food. The first one is just more bigger-picture. On the one hand, as we see more premium pet food brands in Mass, we hear about consumer pushback, about Walmart consumers -- $40,000.00 a year and all the interest in those types of products. But, on the other hand, clearly, more retailers are adding more space to premium pet food.

So, try to resolve that conflict for us, or that contradiction. My visits to stores -- for example, I would say Target these days seems to have eliminated a lot of the Mass brands, and you're seeing a lot more premium. So, when you launch at these new retailers, say, including Walmart, are other brands on the premium side also entering that aisle? Again, the big-picture question is just trying to reconcile this type of pushback on the consumer with the more expensive pet food, but on the other hand, apparently, a number of retailers continue to add a greater percentage of space to premium pet food. Thanks.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Well, Pablo, I appreciate the question. What we see is that first, as Blue has entered, it's been really successful, and in fact, year to date, it's driven something on the order of 40% of the growth in food, drug, and mass, and so, this premium part of the pet food segment, especially in the wholesome, natural area, Blue Buffalo is driving that growth, and interestingly, as Blue has come in to the food, drug, and mass segment, it's actually grown the whole segment, so the whole segment is growing, and the customers that have taken Blue Buffalo are growing faster than the ones that haven't.

So, that says to me there is a premiumization going on in pet food, similar to what we see in human food and what we've seen in natural and organic, so again, the trends there are very similar. What it also speaks to is the success we've had in Blue Buffalo with food, drug, and mass -- as well as e-commerce, by the way. It's No. 1 online and No. 1 in pet specialty, so it's doing well across channels, and great brands do well across channels. We see that with Cheerios and Annie's, and so, what we're seeing in Blue is kind of what we expected, and importantly, it's driving success in the whole segment of wholesome, natural, and food, drug, and mass, and it's really some of the mainstream brands that have seen declines.

Pablo Zuanic -- Susquehanna International Group -- Analyst

Right. Just to follow up, Petco has made some news in the trade press in terms of making significant assortment changes to their portfolio there, taking out brands, focusing on natural ingredients -- any impact on Blue Buffalo? Can you try to quantify the exposure for your business there?

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

We don't comment on specific retailers, but I will say that all our brands are natural, and so, we feel good about the ingredients in Blue Buffalo and certainly wouldn't anticipate any negative consequences from that activity.

Pablo Zuanic -- Susquehanna International Group -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of John Baumgartner with Wells Fargo. Please proceed with your question.

John Baumgartner -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Director

Good morning. Thanks for the question.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Hi, John.

John Baumgartner -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Director

Jon, I just wanted to come back to the softer merchandising in Q2. There's been a lot of talk about shifting your approach to a more non-price promo, and I'm curious to how this influenced performance. Was the softness a function of competitors stepping with sharper elbows for price promo and you have to increase your price promos alongside more than you thought, or did the non-price promo just see weaker lifts? Just curious on more of the background there and the transition moving forward.

Jonathon J. Nudi -- Group President, North America Retail

Sure, John. Great question. What I would say was there was really two specific categories and some specific issues within each which drove to our merchandising softness. So, for cereal, we executed a pack price architecture project through the first half. That touched nearly 70% of our line, so it was a major project. On top of that, we had capacity constraints in our flaked cereals, and combined, the two caused some disruption in our execution, particularly in the months of September and October, and we didn't get the merchandising that we expected. We got back into business from a merchandising standpoint in November, and we saw our business bounce back.

For snacks, we've had capacity constraints on two of our major platforms there as well, and also some timing shifts from major retailers from Q2 to Q3. So, we feel really good about our ability to get merchandising and actually get back to plan from a merchandising standpoint. That will shift out, again, from Q2 to Q3. You're starting to see it already. Again, November was a much better month. Through two weeks of December -- the Nielsen that's out -- you can see that momentum continue, and we're actually up one overall in dollars. So, it was really cereal and snacks. There were specific drivers that, again, are in the past. We feel good about our ability to execute moving forward.

John Baumgartner -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Director

Great. And then, just a follow-up for Don. In terms of some of the businesses that you're thinking about selling some of the slower-growth assets, any updates there in terms of timing or how the volatility of the market impacts some of those plans going forward?

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

There's no update. We spoke to you in the past about looking at roughly 5% of our portfolio, and that's still in line, but we don't have any update until we're ready to pull the trigger on something.

John Baumgartner -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Director

Great. Thanks for your time.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Akshay Jagdale with Jefferies and Co. Please proceed with your question.

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies and Company -- Analyst

Good morning. Thanks for taking the question. So, my first question is on Blue Buffalo. As far as the FDM expansion goes, I think it's well publicized now that there's a delay in the resets at one major retailer by about seven weeks or so, so in light of that, you've still maintained your guidance, so that leads me to believe that you weren't really taking a lot of that in your guidance to begin with. But, can you just help us understand some of the delays in shelf resets, how that has impacted your numbers? And then, related to that, I think, Jeff, you made a comment about how the mix of that business is actually margin-positive. I think there's a big disconnect in expectations on our side as to the FDM channel being margin/mix-neutral to -positive going forward.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

So, in terms of the second-half distribution build, when we came into the year, it's fair to say that we assumed that we would have a big push in our distribution plans at the end of January, and for a variety of reasons, that's going to be delayed by a few weeks. To be honest, in the life of a brand, it's not a big deal. What it means is that because we're really starting in February now instead of January, it pushes into our fourth quarter instead of our third. But, in terms of what it means for the brand, to be honest, it's not a huge deal.

And, what I would also say is that we have been -- while that delay may have impacted the year a little bit to the negative, our product expansion, our variety expansion to other customers is going to be -- frankly, the uptake on that is going to be better than we anticipated because Blue has been so strong in those initial customers we launched into a year ago. So, when you net those things together, we'll have strong growth in food, drug, and mass for the year, so we feel really good about that.

In terms of wet pet food and treats, if I understand your question correctly, what we see is that there will be a product mix in food, drug, and mass, so it'll be a little bit different and skew more toward the wet and treat segments, where the profit margins are better. First of all, they're all good -- all the profit margins in Pet are good. Certainly, relative to General Mills' average, those tend to be particularly good, and as we push into that, that's one of the reasons our household penetration is up higher than our sales, because as we expand into food, drug, and mass -- and also, why it's incremental is because we see a different product mix.

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies and Company -- Analyst

Perfect. And, one follow-up -- maybe for Jon -- related to North America and the recovery, in the context of your guidance, you maintained your sales growth guidance, and it implies a pretty significant turnaround in the businesses in the back half, and you pointed to what I would call some tactical changes or improvements. So, can you help us understand how better merchandising -- say, on snacks -- could have a material impact? It seems like that's what needs to happen to get to the top-line numbers. Thanks.

Jonathon J. Nudi -- Group President, North America Retail

So, I'd say two things. Again, as we look at the underlying health of our business through the first half, we feel good about it. Our baselines were flat, distribution points are heading in the right direction, we feel good about innovation and marketing, so the base business feels strong. It was really merchandising that we saw the miss to plan, and as I mentioned before, we have a good line of sight to getting that merchandising back in the back half.

The other thing that I believe Don touched on in the prepared remarks is that through the first half, there was a difference between what we reported in R&S and what Nielsen movement was. Some of the drivers there were the Green Giant comp that we had through the first half. That goes away as we go into Q3 and into the back half. We do see some significant inventory reductions at some major customers in the first half, as we've had collaborative discussions with those customers. We don't believe that we'll see another downshift in the back half of this year.

And then, finally, as Don mentioned, there was some trade phasing -- some minor differences that were a bit of a headwind in the first half that will become more of a tailwind in the back half. So, really, I think from an execution standpoint, if we get our merchandising where we expect it to be and continue the baseline strength, we believe that we can be where we need to be to deliver for the company.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

And, I would build on that -- I agree with everything that Jon said, and I would build on that by saying if you look at -- and, Don had it on one of our slides -- if you look at the first half of the year, our organic sales were flat, and our guidance for the year was flat to up 1%, and so, on our organic business, we don't need to jump out of our shoes in order to hit our guidance for the year. Do we need to improve a little bit? Yes, but we don't need to improve so significantly that we feel like we have to go out and buy volume at any cost in the back half of the year to hit our sales guidance. That's not the case at all. We just need to improve a little bit in a couple specific areas.

The biggest improvement you're going to see in our back half of the year is going to be on Blue Buffalo, and you'll see that because of the comps, and the fact that we're lapping the inventory from Q2, and we're not doing that again in the back half, and we're doubling our distribution. That will be the biggest increase, and we have very tangible plans in place in order to recognize that.

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies and Company -- Analyst

Thank you.

Jeff Siemon -- Vice President, Investor Relations

I think maybe we'll try to get one more on, please.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of David Driscoll with Citi. Please proceed with your question.

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

All right. Well, I appreciate making it in under the wire. Good morning.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning, David.

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

I wanted to ask a few questions on Blue Buffalo. Can you guys quantify the growth in wet treats and other and dry food?

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

From a retail sales standpoint, if you look across channels, we're seeing wet and treats growth in the 20% range -- so, well ahead of the total -- so we feel really good about where we're seeing that, and as Jeff said, food, drug, and mass is where we're seeing particular outperformance for wet and treats.

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

Okay. And then, on dry, do you have any number that you can give us? Of course, that's the biggest piece of it, so I would assume that it was down related to the FDM launch from a year ago, but any quantification you could give on that? Buff used to give us those disclosures, and I think it's pretty helpful.

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

David, what I was just referencing was our retail sales, not the net sales. Net sales were down, and I actually don't have the split on net sales between dry, wet, and treats, but from a retail standpoint, again, wet and treats were driving some nice growth, but in total, with dry being the bulk of the business, you still saw positive trends there.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

I think your instincts are right in that because it was the inventory build into food, drug, and mass last year on the Life Protection formula, a big piece of which was dry, it's fair to assume that that business on a reported net sales basis didn't perform as well because that's where we had the inventory build, so I think your instincts are right. Even if we don't have the exact right numbers in front of us right now, I think your instincts are correct.

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

And then, on the Wilderness brand, that's the second-largest brand at the company. Can you make any comments about how that brand is growing?

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Well, first of all, Wilderness is a great brand, and I think some of the best packaging we have at General Mills and some of the best equity, and I can tell you in -- it's kind of a tale of two things. We don't have it in FDM at the moment, but in specialty, it's doing OK, but it's declining a little bit because our business in pet specialty is declining. In e-commerce, it's on fire. So, a fair amount of our growth in e-commerce is Wilderness as well as the Life Protection formula, and that's a great sub-line, and we think it has a lot of potential, just like we think Life Protection has still a lot of potential.

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

Okay. Two more Buff questions, and then one question for Don. The two final ones on Buff are just -- I think you mentioned on your new product plans that you would be launching new varieties, but just for clarity, are these new varieties in the marketplace in any marketplace, or are these varieties that were in some channels previously and you're moving those existing varieties into FDM? I just want to be clear if it's really a new product or if it's existing product channel expansions.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

It's fair to assume it's existing products that we're expanding channels -- so, products with a proven track record of success that we are expanding.

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

Okay. And then, for Don, two questions for you. On the start-up of the new plants for Blue Buffalo, can you give us any quantification as to either the dollar expenses of these new start-ups -- sorry, the plant start-up costs on your P&L and/or the gross margin impact? In the past, for Blue, these were significant expenses. And then, I have a debt question for you. I just would like you to talk about your debt, your paydown plans, your debt to EBITDA targets, and I believe you have a $1 billion maturity in February. I ask all this in light of what's happened to your dividend yield and your thoughts there. Thank you.

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

Sure. In terms of Blue, plant start-up -- if you think about the profit decline in the quarter, it's about a third from lower sales, a third from plant start-up costs, and a third from the impact of inflation, and so, to your point, it was a significant factor, and that's something that we will roll through as the year unfolds. So, I think your recollection of the impact is correct.

As far as debt, year to date from the end of the year until now, our debt is down about $500 million. We do have that maturity coming up, so we'll have opportunity to bring that down further in the back half of the year -- not by the full $1 billion, but by some additional amount -- and we still target to exit FY '20 with our leverage ratio at 3.5x, which is what we announced at the time of the deal.

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

Thanks. I appreciate the comments. Thank you, and happy holidays.

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Happy holidays, David.

Jeff Siemon -- Vice President, Investor Relations

That's all the time we have. Thanks, everyone, for hanging with us. We appreciate all the good questions, and please reach out with further questions. We're around all day. Thanks so much. Have a great holiday season.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, this does conclude today's conference call. We thank you for your participation and ask that you kindly disconnect your lines.

Duration: 66 minutes

Call participants:

Jeff Siemon -- Vice President, Investor Relations

Jeffrey L. Harmening -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Donal L. Mulligan -- Chief Financial Officer

Jonathon J. Nudi -- Group President, North America Retail

Ken Goldman -- J.P. Morgan Chase -- Managing Director

Chris Growe -- Stifel Financial -- Analyst

Robert Moskow -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Jason English -- Goldman Sachs -- Managing Director

Pablo Zuanic -- Susquehanna International Group -- Analyst

John Baumgartner -- Wells Fargo Securities -- Director

Akshay Jagdale -- Jefferies and Company -- Analyst

David Driscoll -- Citi Research -- Managing Director

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