Karl McKeever Column - June 2018

Managing a problem child

Buying for a baby can be pretty stressful. Expectant parents seeking pushchairs, nursery furniture, baby clothes and the whole plethora of ‘stuff’ that tiny babies seem to need can often find themselves facing a minefield of information, misinformation and advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. What they need is a reassuring retailer who can gently guide them through the maze of choices. Unfortunately, there is a danger that many could soon have nowhere to go with the future decidedly uncertain at the once-reliable parent whisperer, Mothercare.

The retailer is continuing to make headlines as its CVA leads to an increasing number of store closures and job losses. With further restructuring likely, Mothercare’s fate could be hanging in the balance, and retail commentators will be watching keenly to see what further developments June brings. But this is no time for throwing the toys out of the pram.

I’m particularly interested in seeing how this complex retail story finds its conclusion. On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited retailer Crate&Barrel, who have chosen an innovative response to changes in the shopping behaviour of expectant parents. Back in February, it announced that they were closing all stores in its sister division, The Land of Nod, to instead open dedicated Crate&Kids departments within their own stores.

There are some clear differences, though. Rather than being a direct response to a crisis – as is the case with Mothercare – this seems to be more of a carefully planned strategic move. Growing a separate chain is a huge investment in terms of property, office staff, store teams and a whole host of other associated costs. Fair enough if it pays off, but let’s face it, The Land of Nod stores must have been under performing. Over time, they had tried admirably to create a second stand alone business, but by consolidating, and importantly taking away the key learning’s, they are instead building a bigger brand, with a national presence and reach – both instore and online.

And a beautiful brand it is too. Feature walls are created with VM expertise, products are cleverly positioned, messaging is crisp and clear – with a few cheeky touches – and the whole experience feels lovingly executed, with care and attention to detail lavished on it. With the new kids’ section integrated within the homewares department, Crate&Barrel are now perfectly placed to target the entire family of shoppers – from pre-kids adult shoppers to parents, grandparents and empty nesters. A clever move indeed.

A move which has also shown Crate&Barrel to have the courage of its convictions. When faced with decisions, there simply isn’t time or room for retailers to sit on the fence: they must choose their direction and sail confidently towards their destination. With the recent demise of ToysRUs and BabysRUs, arguably Crate&Barrel’s decisions may have been different today in terms of further opportunities for The Land of Nod. But companies can’t predict the future of their competitors. Instead, they must be certain in their own planning, with robust, clear strategies to drive sales.

With this in mind, it’s decision time for Mothercare. The brand is clearly suffering from more than just teething problems. Inconsistent branding, lack of clarity across departments, poor VM execution and cluttered stores combine with a clinical, impersonal approach is sending shoppers in search of a more nurturing experience. Add to that the complexities of clearly defining and delivering an effective customer experience for the erstwhile Early Learning Centres and the numerous third party brands and inhouse private labels on offer, there’s no shortage of work to occupy the management team in developing effective solutions to take the business forward.
Where should it go next? Does it need its own stores, or could its future be in logical strategic alliances? For example, Next has a strong reputation for children’s clothes and is currently experimenting with brand tie-ups at its Arndale store in Manchester. And if it can sell Ford cars – one such experiment – then surely the Mothercare/Early Learning Centre ranges would be a walk in the park? Next is also trialling space within Tesco stores, demonstrating it’s willingness to ‘step outside’ of the box in seeking new retail solutions.

Were it to abandon its own stores and move towards this ‘shop-in-shop’ policy, it would be wise to look at the Crate&Barrel model of perfect integration, with the brand lovingly delivered instore with expertise and authority. It would certainly be foolish to opt for the quick-fix, scattergun solution of simply parachuting into any existing store – think Sainsbury’s with Argos. This may seem like a fast answer to a pressing problem, but the outcome is simply a disparate mix of brands and offers, leading to a fractured customer experience. Another approach is the rather unusual pairing of Kiddicare with homewares retailer Dunelm, which acquired the brand in 2016. The children’s products currently only have an online presence, but it’s nonetheless expanding Dunelm’s range and giving them the opportunity to bring the products instore.

Should Mothercare abandon its own stores? No. For me, it is far from being a lost cause. But it does need to find itself again, and with a more strategic, cohesive and radical approach. It’s a brand that’s crying out for attention and – with focus, expertise and discipline – it could potentially find itself back in its trusted role as the mother of all children’s brands, not necessarilly just within its own destination stores, but as a specialist brand name and a curated offer in other places where wanting consumers can be found.


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