The administrations of Mothercare UK and Mamas & Papas last week expose their failure to meet the demands of new parents in a changing market.
The collapse of Mothercare’s UK business into administration, threatening 2,500 jobs, and Mamas & Papas’ closure of six stores through a pre-pack administration are a clear signal that the mother-and-baby market is as challenged as any other in UK fashion retail.
With a portfolio of 79 stores and an established brand presence synonymous with maternity, baby and young children, it could be argued that Mothercare occupied an unrivalled position in the market.
However, the business has deemed its 79 UK stores unviable and unattractive for a buyer after announcing plans to shift its UK retail operations to an independent franchise model, and appointed Zelf Hussain, Toby Banfield and David Baxendale of PWC as administrators on 5 November. The global business is unaffected.
Meanwhile, on 8 November certain assets of fellow mother-and-baby retailer Mamas & Papas (Retail) were sold to other companies within the Mamas & Papas Group through a pre-pack administration conducted by Deloitte. Six unprofitable stores closed and 54 head office redundancies have been proposed.
Linda Gill, director at babywear sales agency Finest for Baby, which sells brands including Kissy Kissy, says Mothercare failed to keep up with the market: “Where Mothercare went wrong is that they just didn’t move with the times quick enough. Everyone is doing childrenswear now. Whether it’s Sainsbury’s or Tesco, there’s a lot of competition.
“When you’re shopping for food [baby clothes] is an easy buy. And the certainty that younger ones outgrow their clothes before they outwear them is known. So why do you want to spend a fortune on them if you can get cute things in the supermarket?”
GlobalData’s UK Childrenswear Trend Report, 2018 shows the UK kidswear market was worth £5.4bn in 2017, and is forecast to grow by 12.4% between 2017 and 2022.
The sector’s audience has changed. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 82% of women had had at least one child by the age of 30 in 1976 compared with just over half, 52%, in 2016. The expectant and new mother also now has the option of purchasing online – and that is where 58% of them shop, a report by Pragma Consulting shows.
Gill says the internet has had an impact on bricks-and-mortar sales in the babywear market as much as any other part of the fashion retail industry, and rising rents have placed a significant burden on independent retailers: “From our perspective we are doing OK, but it is tough out there. It’s the toughest for the small independents by miles – they are still being hit by rent increases.
“We’ve had quite a few stores we’ve dealt with for 10, 15 or 20 years who are just saying “enough”. They can’t compete. We’ve lost quite a few who we’ve had for a long time who have said: ’We’re just feeding the landlords.’”
Mothers with conscience
Sustainability is another issue affecting the fashion industry.
Inger Breitenstein, owner of children’s footwear and fashion agency Breitenstein Agencies, says: “Young mums are very keen on buying into brands that have some kind of a histor – something that is sustainable and organic. We get asked more and more about how products are sourced and where they are from, that is key.
“There are issues [with the babywear market] but the product that Mothercare had wasn’t appealing to customers or following the trend. You need to be very on the ball at the moment to know what young mums want to buy.”
Ruth Symonds, principal consultant, consulting division, at Kantar, agrees that many retailers in the sector have not considered the needs of new parents. Working with website Mumsnet, Kantar surveyed a large selection of young mothers to understand what their key priorities were.
“Ultimately there are three currencies for mums,” explains Symonds. “One is their time, the other is energy for both themselves and their kids, and the last was money or cost.
“We found that if you could service mums in terms of time, energy and convenience, they were actually prepared to spend more for products and services to allow them more time to spend quality time with their kids.”
Symonds adds that for many new parents, who can be up late at night looking for guidance on a parenting issue, social media is increasingly important. “It is a tell-tale sign for me that retailers need to be there for [new parents] and be more than just a retailer or a brand.”
As sales move increasingly online managing director of independent kidswear chain Base Fashion Marc Granditer believes online needs to be a core part of any babywear retailer’s business model: “Online is growing. Young mums shop around, they monitor a lot of shops and do a lot of comparing of prices, they go into a shop try something on and then buy online.
“Brands like Boohoo and online-only retailers have succeeded in creating their own community. You have to create that sort of club [to be successful]. What [babywear or nurserywear retailers] need is a dedicated marketing department that is constantly reaching out to the appropriate groups, that requires a focus.”
Indeed, offering experiential opportunities for new parents may increase both footfall and revenue, and such services offer a point of difference.
Mamas & Papas has a parenting club called “M&P and Me”, which gives shoppers first access to new products and parenting guides.
Mothercare allocates space in some of its larger stores for community events such as new-parent meet-ups, baby and child first aid, free coffee mornings and midwifery advisory sessions. However, a lot of the events have been wound down and space was given back to product, to the detriment of the overall offer.
One former Mothercare employee tells Drapers: “They had NCT [National Childbirth Trust] classes, spaces for young mums and lots of events. The rooms were never not booked out and people always left the stores with at least something [they had bought]. But it was difficult to measure a financial return on that, so the management gave it back as selling space.”
Independent retailer Trotters has combined its traditional children’s store with a hair salon, so parents can fulfil two necessities at once.
Gill believes this is an aspect many retailers may consider in the future: “Trotters have looked at the market and they offer. You can get your child’s hair cut, and while he or she is sitting in the chair, you can look at a product. You not only get a haircut, but you get a few outfits and a toy. Retailers can’t simply expect people to come into their stores any more.”
There are three currencies for mums: time, energy for both themselves and money or cost
Ruth Symonds, principal consultant, consulting division, at Kantar
Symonds agrees that retailers need to think outside the box to drive footfall: “No matter what sector you are in as a brand or retailer, you have to look outside the confines of your sector when looking for best in class.
“I live near a shopping centre that has just installed creche that you can pre-book, drop your children off for free for two hours, and then you’re able to shop.”
As Mothercare begins its closing down Sales, questions remain over the future of the business and its 2,500 employees. The administrators are believed to be in talks with interested parties, and the retailer continues to operate online.
Whether Mothercare and Mamas & Papas can be reborn from the wreckage, and restore the faith of expectant and new parents in their ability to cater to customer needs, will determine their future.
The Drapers Verdict
Like any part of the fashion sector, the babywear market faces its own challenges in among the general retail malaise. Online has taken a bite out of the sector, like all others.
Nevertheless, it has a unique opportunity to engage new parents, and support and advise them on the best products and services for their new arrivals.
If a retailer can provide a strong online offer, coupled with a best-in-class in-store service, it can capture the lucrative new young mum audience.