When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, there was one store we repeatedly visited to buy baby products; Mothercare (note the use of the word “we”, it is relevant). I think the same could once have been said for many couples, it being such a well-known name on the high street.
Over time, however, we drifted apart from Mothercare. I know we’re not alone as I’ve heard similar stories time and again from other people who have children of a similar age.
What went wrong?
The company suffered from an image problem related both to the quality of its merchandise and the name which, in the age of shared parental leave and same sex marriage, looks a little dated. These are not state secrets; a simple Googlewhack of the Mothercare name brings up numerous press cuttings in the business pages about the struggles the company has had.
My family was among those that had some bad experiences. We once had a cot bed delivered. When unpackaged, one of the headboards had a huge split in it. There were two pairs of trousers that developed holes the first time my daughter wore them.
There was also an exasperating experience with the customer service team that was never resolved. It involved an expensive pushchair that developed a debilitating fault in one of the wheels almost as soon as it was removed from the box. After a year of gathering dust in the garage, it ended its days at the local recycling centre having hardly been touched.
I wouldn’t normally write quite so candidly about my negative experiences with a retailer. I prefer behind the scenes diplomacy. As will become apparent in a moment, the situation I find myself in on this occasion is a bit different.
An interesting choice of language
Having had some poor experiences with the company, I then became a stay at home father and the Mothercare name began to bother me. I would have overlooked the name, but at the time it’s corporate mission statement rubbed salt in the wounds by stating the company was; “designed to meet the needs of mothers-to-be, babies and children up to the age of eight.”
That may seem anodyne to many mums, but such words alienate any involved, caring father. The retailer does, after all, sell gender neutral items used by fathers such as; blankets, baby baths, baby bottles, nappies, pushchairs, car seats etc. With such a background, other retail alternatives looked more appealing and we simply went elsewhere. As, it seems, did many other parents of our generation.
That was all in the past. Let’s bring you up to date.
An inspired response from Mothercare
A short while ago I was invited to view Mothercare’s autumn / winter range of clothes. I politely turned down the invite highlighting the issues I had with Mothercare. Mothercare’s response took me quite by surprise.
I’ll paraphrase, but I received an email that said, in effect; “Yeah, we can see why you don’t have a great impression of us. We maybe didn’t cover ourselves in glory in the past. We are, however, a brand in transition. Would you like to view our autumn / winter range and meet with Gary Kibble, our Global Brand and Marketing Director who can update you on changes at the company?” Needless to say, I accepted.
A hot, spring evening in Soho
One hot, spring evening I found myself in an art gallery in London’s Soho, surrounded by Mothercare’s latest clothes ranges. Big names are now producing collections for the company including Julien Macdonald and Jools Oliver in addition to Mylene Klass, a long-time Mothercare collaborator.
Almost as soon as I was through the door, I was introduced to Kibble, a very affable and approachable individual who joined the company a year ago. He gave me a history of the company explaining that it was founded by a chap called Selim Zikha in 1961. Zikha is now 89 years of age and lives in Los Angeles. Despite his age and having had no formal interest in Mothercare for some time, he travelled to the UK to offer Kibble and his team advice on what Mothercare should do to meet the needs of 21st century parents.
Welcome to the club
So what has changed at the company? First of all, that Edwardian-era mission statement has been replaced. Mothercare’s new vision is; “To be the leading global retailer for parents and young children.”
Kibble also explained the company has adopted a “brand agenda” called “welcome to the club”.
The club, he elaborates; “could be IVF families, same sex families, single parent families.”
Credit where it’s due, Mothercare seems to be making an effort to be more inclusive and understanding of its customers. It was also fascinating to hear a brand like Mothercare acknowledge same sex couples. I personally feel they are frequently overlooked by the parenting industry.
Kibble also elaborates on the welcome to the club agenda. He likens it to Tesco’s every little helps; “It could be you were at Tesco and in a queue at the till. Another till was opened because every little helps.”
It’s early days, but the aim is to ensure the inclusive welcome to the club theme is adopted throughout the whole organisation. So what about the Mothercare name? Younger rivals have gender neutral names such as Mamas & Papas and Kiddicare.
Kibble volunteers a response without being asked; “The Mothercare name is staying.”
The name, he says, is too well established. It would be difficult to change.
The name may remain, but Mothercare is going through a huge period of change. Customers will notice some more obvious changes in October. Kibble is cagey on details. They are, after all, commercially sensitive.
Nonetheless, the company has quizzed 3,500 customers to get a feel for what needs updating. You won’t be surprised to hear the brand is seeking to increase its online presence, and this will feature online tailored content and advice directed at both mums and dads. Kibble goes out of his way to stress content will be inclusive of fathers.
Mothercare is not, however, leaving the high street. Yes, some store closures have been announced but a number of new stores are also in the pipeline, as is a wide-ranging refurbishment programme of existing outlets. In addition to this, the bigger stores will feature cafes next to soft play areas (already in place in a few destinations).
It’s all very well making these changes, but product quality has been an issue. Customers won’t visit Mothercare simply because it has a café. Purchases must withstand reasonable wear and tear.
Kibble is careful what he says on this point. He makes clear he doesn’t wish to be disrespectful to staff. Even so, he acknowledges there have been issues in the past;
“Because of Mothercare’s dominance, certain decisions were made in the past that affected quality.”
He believes the company has improved its product range and the quality of what it sells. I can’t really comment on this, I haven’t shopped at Mothercare for some time. I would, however, certainly hope improvements have been made.
The autumn / winter 2016 range of clothes
I wasn’t just in Soho to meet Kibble. I was also invited to explore the new range of clothes. I was suitably impressed by the designer products on show. Julien Macdonald’s Smile range for children under six months is, I have to say, stunning. I loved it and having two daughters, I was particularly impressed by the girls’ range.
Jools Oliver’s Little Bird range was very colourful and retro-inspired. The shoes had a timeless style and looked very hard wearing. I could imagine my kids wearing some of these outfits.
Mylene Klass’ MK range was for slightly older children. Most items were in silver/grey and black. These items were a bit more glitzy that the other designer ranges. I think they’d make for great party wear.
Mothercare’s own range was full of great basics. There were more vibrant colours and some great signature pieces that I could see my youngest daughter wearing. To my great surprise, Kibble said the designer ranges were only about 10% more expensive than Mothercare own-brand products.
The final word
With the sun having set on Soho and having had the chance to explore the autumn / winter clothes range, I had to ask Kibble one last question. What is his message to fathers out there?
“We genuinely acknowledge the central role fathers have in the upbringing of children. We are focused on dads and mums.”
Having been invited into the Mothercare Machine, it was obvious to me the organisation is changing to better reflect the customers it serves. There seemed to be recognition of previous quality issues and the fact it hadn’t always been inclusive or father-friendly.
I’m not going to tell you it’s a love-in, but I may have warmed to Mothercare a bit. Above anything else, I’m delighted to see that outdated mission statement has changed. I shall be watching what happens between now and October very closely indeed.
What’s your experience of Mothercare? Have you noticed positive changes? If you’re a dad, have you it warmed to it slightly? Do you like the new range of clothes?