Monday, April 16, 2012

Who (Mother)cares how the story ends?

"Apart from the obvious, how important are fathers to you?"

Five years ago, I was an expectant father, a face in the crowd at the Marketing Society Retail Forum, listening to recently-departed Mothercare CEO Ben Gordon, holding forth on the secret of Mothercare's success. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but even at the time, there were one or two comments that should have set alarm bells ringing. First was his apparently relaxed attitude towards their customers - "75% of expectant mothers come to us" - the unspoken assumption being that they would continue to do so, indefinitely.

During the Q&A that followed, I raised my hand, and asked him about fathers. I admit that the phrasing of the question got a few laughs, although that really wasn't the point of it. As a nervous dad-to-be looking to define my role in future family life, I was genuinely interested in how the country's best-known parenting retailer viewed me. His response was distinctly unsatisfactory - guys sometimes played around the pushchairs and other gadgets, apparently. There was nothing about emotional need states, long-term customer loyalty, or any of the customer insight that other big retailers, from supermarkets to DIY chains, displayed.

The recent announcement of the closure of 111 stores is the latest sign of a business that has lost touch with its community. 75 Early Learning Centres are to go, which, considering that education is in crisis, seems both apt and sad. They only bought ELC about seven years ago, of course. As a member of the ELC Big Baby Club, I've been getting regular emails about toy sales and massive reductions for the past two years. Was that based on prior purchase behaviour, customer insight or just because they had my email address?

I've been to see Mothercare several times over the past few years. The tone of each conversation has gradually shifted from breeezy confidence to nail-biting uncertainty, as an organisation that fixed its gaze on distant horizons suddenly woke up and smelled the rot at home. Daft stories like the global pig removal from the Happyland farm set, because it was inappropriate for the growth markets in the Middle East, illustrated the problems of trying to micro-manage a global brand from Watford. Meanwhile, on the home front, the brand continued to talk at everyone, even as the opportunities to engage in conversation multiplied.

Most of the parents I talk to agree that the biggest problem with Mothercare stores is lack of stock. Slimming down the estate may help the company to get the right numbers to the right stores. But the challenge is to make people fall in love with the brand. It shouldn't be difficult, but when did they last do any advertising? Engaging on Gurgle, or even with Mumsnetters, isn't going to drive traffic. All the supermarkets advertise, and it's not as if they struggle for footfall.

Family services are being cut, kids are getting fatter, and our High Streets are in danger of extinction. If ever there was an opportunity for a well-known retailer to start giving its community what they need, not what it wants, it is surely now. If the story of the next decade is to be gradual recovery of the country's towns, then Mothercare seems an ideal protagonist.

Mothercare should know better than most businesses the power of a good storty, yet is reluctant to tell its own. If there is to be a happy ending, it needs to get narrating. Othwerse the tale could turn out very Grimm indeed. The Big Bad Wolf is puffing.


At 9:34 AM GMT+1 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the threat is just from the supermarkets (and Amazon), as a new parent I can honestly say that the JL baby and the M&P baby experience is world's apart from the M'Care experience. Having spent a small fortune recently very very little was spent in M'Care sadly BUT I do hope it doesn't follow Woolworths it is an institution and I hope they can turn it around.


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