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Overcoming growing pains in the childrenswear market

La coqueta ancla baby look

Brands seeking growth in the competitive UK kidswear market have to balance sometimes conflicting demands

Childrenswear should be a market filled with boundless opportunity. New customers are constantly being born, while existing ones rapidly grow out of, lose or ruin their favourite clothing.

The UK kidswear market was worth £6.3bn in 2019 and is predicted to grow to £6.7bn in 2020, Euromonitor International data indicates. A 2019 report from the market research provider argues that shifting demographics, including a widely reported “baby boom” in 2011, have created stronger growth in the category.

And yet, last year, the market was rocked by not one but two high-profile collapses. Mamas & Papas closed six of its 27 stores and made 73 staff redundant after it went into administration in November. Mothercare, once the first choice for expectant parents, appointed administrators to its UK business Mamas & Papas closed six of its 27 stores and made 73 staff redundant after it went into administration in November.

Mothercare, once the first choice for expectant parents, appointed administrators to its UK business the same month, warning that its operations “were not capable of returning to a level of structural profitability”. The closure of all 79 stores was complete by 12 January, resulting in 2,500 redundancies. The retailer has since signed a franchise deal with Boots, which will stock Mothercare-branded clothing, home and travel products.

To avoid a similar fate, childrenswear retailers and brands have to offer original designs and hard-wearing clothes at affordable prices, along with outstanding omnichannel service. Paying attention to trends for more formal pieces and gender-neutral clothing, and recognising the growing importance of sustainability in the market add to the demands placed on today’s childrenswear brands.

Keeping it special

Retail analysts – including Sofie Willmott, senior retail analyst at GlobaData, and Richard Lim, CEO of Retail Economics – blamed Mothercare’s failure on a damaging cocktail of factors, including its inability to define itself as a specialist, declining digital sales and increased competition from other players, including John Lewis and Amazon.

Laura Tenison, founder of maternity and babywear retailer JoJo Maman Bébé, points to a “triple whammy” of potential challenges facing retailers and brands in the crowded kidswear market: “Of course, there’s the ongoing economic instability and austerity. We are also keen for a resolution to the international trade concerns [created by Brexit] so that we can pick up where we left off three years ago and increase our investment in export markets.

“Then there’s the pressure put on all ethical retailers by Amazon raising customers’ expectations [around delivery.] We offer our teams time off at Christmas, which means next-day delivery has to be suspended for a few days.

“If our customers can’t wait, they may go elsewhere, but we refuse to compromise on our business ethics of putting people above profit.”

Sainsburys lifestyle cw3

Sainsbury’s Tu

Tenison sees room for growth in the market for retailers who can offer a truly omnichannel service, experiential stores, and product that blends creativity with longevity: “We [pursue] new developments in garment technology, as well as creating beautiful clothes and designing nursery products to help make life as a parent a little easier. Naturally, with some of the biggest British retailers in our market sector facing difficulties or closure, we have a great opportunity to pick up market share.” 

Celia Munoz is creative director of kidswear brand La Coqueta, which she founded in 2012 (spring 20, pictured top). It is stocked by London department store Liberty, and attracted international attention when it was worn by Prince Louis in an official portrait in 2018. She agrees that a careful blend of durability and eye-catching design are the key to success in kidswear.

“On the one hand, there is a practical aspect,” she tells Drapers. “Garments need to be easy to wear and long-lasting, so they can be passed down. But, at the same time, brands needs to be original and have unique designs.

“Customers are very interested in provenance. They want to know about the materials, where the garments are made and by who. They’re demanding that brands be as sustainable as possible. On top of all of that, price is very important, too. Customers are very savvy when it comes to quality and price.”

Being an ethical retailer is another opportunity for those operating in the market. Tenison – as well as several other retailers and independent brands Drapers spoke to – stressed the growing importance of sustainability in this sector.

Sustainability is becoming ever more important, and the origins and processes used are a significant factor to the consumer

Melanie Fieldsend, Sainsbury’s Tu

Boden, for example, launched environmentally friendly children’s clothing and swimwear as part of its Mini Boden line at the start of this year. It is made from Econyl nylon sourced from discarded fishing nets, and is available for girls, boys and babies.

“Our customers are more and more conscious about making sustainable choices,” childrenswear design director Harriet Earle tells Drapers. “We are so confident our Mini coats will survive several owners that we include an ‘I belong to’ label with room for multiple children to write their names.”

Melanie Fieldsend, childrenswear buying manager at Sainsbury’s Tu, echoes this sentiment: “In the longer term, sustainability is becoming ever more important, and the origins and processes used are a significant factor to the consumer. Some of our recent initiatives include a 100% Better Cotton Initiative [textile] in our kidswear ranges, the introduction of low water usage in our denim range, and recycled polyester in our swimwear offer. We continuously strive to adopt new sustainability initiatives to improve our ranges for long-term benefits.”

Boden mini spring 20

Mini Boden spring 20

However, satisfying consumers’ demands for sustainable product and good value is a balancing act.

“A challenge for brands can be striving to be as eco-conscious as possible while keeping price points competitive,” says Leanne McKeever, co-founder of childrenswear brand Tobias & The Bear. “You need to innovate and not follow the herd. Offer great customer service, treat your subscribers well, and try not to compete with the high street in terms of discounts and flash Sales. That way your customers feel valued.”

Tradition and modernity

When it comes to product trends, two opposing forces are defining the market. A report published last year by Euromonitor points to the rise of both traditional formal styles – made popular by the new generation of young royals – and a trend for more gender-neutral styles.

We are seeing a shift to traditional styling and details

Aimi Williams-Smith, Sainsbury’s Tu

Boden seeks to harness both themes, says Earle: “A sense of modern nostalgia inspired by the royal family is a key trend we are continuing to show throughout our ranges, alongside continued development of our unisex offering.” 

Aimi Williams-Smith, childrenswear design manager at Tu, also notes the influence of the young royals: “We are seeing a shift to traditional styling and details. We’ve seen the royal effect of Prince George, Prince Louis and Princess Charlotte on trend directions. We are loving the return of Peter Pan collars, smocking embroidery and hand-knit-style knitwear. 

“The influence of Scandinavian kidswear is also inspiring our fashion shapes with more contemporary, looser styling.”

Andrea Carter, founder of Another Fox, and a former buyer at Topman and Ted Baker, started her childrenswear label in 2017 to give parents a modern alternative to stereotypical pink and blue pieces.

She says animal print has been a core trend across both boys’ and girls’ wear, adding that it “did amazingly well for us during autumn 19. It proved a bestseller, and we’re expecting to see that again during spring 20 and beyond. Cheetah print has been very strong, as has zebra. Animal print taps into the unisex trend, as it can be gender neutral for girls and boys.”

Fred & noah 2

Fred & Noah spring 20

Natalie Reynolds, owner and director of childrenswear brand Fred & Noah, agrees: “We are seeing more demand than ever for prints that historically were just used for boyswear – such as dinosaurs, cars and fire engines – on dresses. We don’t list categories for boys or girls, and I expect to see a move towards whole ranges becoming gender neutral.”

The woes of Mamas & Papas and Mothercare prove that kids-wear is not a licence to print money, but there are opportunities offered by new trends. There is room for growth, but only for those who can nail a successful omnichannel offer, tempting product proposition and top-notch service.

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