Key findings from consumer strategy consultancy Pragma’s recently published whitepaper on the UK baby and children’s market, which includes insights into market opportunities and challenges, brand opinion and an overview of industry trends.
Pragma view: Ralph Fernando, senior managing director, strategy, digital & operations at Pragma Consulting
“It is no secret that the market for children’s clothing and equipment is a darling of the investment community, beloved for its scale and apparent resistance to recessionary pressures.
“The disregard for traditional notions of value for money, particularly on the part of new parents, has served only to make an already sweet treat even more irresistible.
“In every corner of the consumer sector, our clients ask us what impact we expect from Brexit. It seems uncontroversial to anticipate a slowdown in spending in certain areas: there are undoubtedly clouds on the horizon. With inflation running at 2.7 per cent and wage growth failing to keep up, it is no wonder that consumer spending looks weak and wobbly. The question we ask is whether we can expect the nation’s spending on children to maintain its past form and profit from cutbacks made in more discretionary areas of spending? Industry forecasts suggest the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’.
“This represents a doubling of the growth rate witnessed between 2007 and 2016 for each category. The caveat to this is that no market forecasts anticipated what we saw in 2008.
“We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the one thing we can be relatively sure of is demand. The UK has produced an average of c.670k new babies every year since the year 2000, and this figure rises to more than 700k if we just look at the last decade. These babies need food and clothing, and that’s just the tip of an iceberg that includes everything from luxury pushchairs to baby yoga classes.
“While the drivers behind volume appear robust, the evolution of market value is less clear. On the one hand, there is little evidence to suggest that the new crop of millennial parents are any less inclined to prioritise spending on their children. Indeed, one of the trends we are witnessing is the creation of the ‘mini-me’ – the child dressed in the style of a parent – a trend that lends itself to the social media habits of the Instagram generation, and which promises a new source of growth to those retailers that can identify the most relevant lines to re-imagine for this younger audience. Mamas & Papas understands this customer group very well and has introduced a very successful personal shopping service, as well as Loved for Life, which refurbishes pushchairs, appealing to those who value recycling.
“On the other hand, ‘value’ has penetrated this market, which was for so long considered a sacred cow in a way that few foresaw. Aldi has the second largest nappy brand in the country and the supermarket seems unwilling to stop there, having also introduced its own organic baby food and milk formula. And it is little surprise, given the runaway success of fast fashion retailers in the wider apparel market, to see early signs point to these same players taking increasing share in the children’s sector: H&M increased its market share from 0.7 per cent to 1.2 per cent between 2015 and 2016.
“Whatever your views, new brands have been undeterred by the stiff, competitive environment created by established players. In this paper, we include interviews with two such brands: on the apparel side, industry veteran Kate Bostock discusses fulfilling her long-held ambition to build her childrenswear brand, Angel & Rocket. Elsewhere, we explore the growth of the Belle & Boo brand with co-founder Kate Shafe, considering the perennial parenting challenge of finding alternative gift options to the ubiquitous Disney franchises.”
Expert view: Kate Bostock, owner, Angel & Rocket
What’s the story behind Angel & Rocket?
My husband and I have strong backgrounds in retail, he in sourcing while I have been head of all clothing and general merchandise at Marks & Spencer, head of clothing at George and clothing director for Next and ASOS. When I decided to leave M&S, we started our lifelong ambition to launch our own brand, Angel & Rocket. My family is all involved: my youngest son is a designer and my eldest son is managing director, running the trading business as we call it. My husband’s manufacturing and sourcing business, Scantex, helps with the day-to-day running of the brand, particularly on logistics and shipping. We launched the brand for ages 3-10 years and we introduced a babywear range last winter.
Why did you choose to go into childrenswear?
You can have so much fun with childrenswear and that is one of the reasons why we chose it over womenswear. I am very involved with the design direction and brand personality, and I have a great design team who get it. They add their talents, always surprising me with their unique designs. I love what we do – our teamwork is special.
What is the essence of the Angel & Rocket brand?
Our brand is for kids who go places and do things, like going to restaurants with their families and, at some stage, with their friends. They travel, they go to the theatre. And therefore, there is an appropriateness about how they want to dress. They are definitely quite confident children, in that they want to be noticed.
Where did the name come from?
We deliberated for a number of weeks as to what to call this brand. We wanted something a little bit different and quirky. It was actually my eldest son who came up with the two names. He was going to meet a friend in Islington one evening and he went past two pubs, one called The Angel and one called The Rocket. We get great feedback on the name – people love it.
What were the first couple of years like?
Quite challenging: buying stock, managing stock levels and making sure it was good enough. We called in a lot of favours from people we know, for which we are very, very grateful.
I struggle to understand how people can do it without these previous relationships. We work with manufacturers we have known throughout our careers, because we trust them and we know that they are all extremely compliant with children’s standards and legislation.
In the third year, it was still difficult as we were still investing and not really making any money, so we had to ask ourselves a few tough questions. Today, we can see we are doing the right thing and there is a real appetite for the brand, and we are now enjoying some profit.
Have you any interesting developments?
We are opened a pop-up shop in Marlow in June. We have lots of other things up our sleeves that will be very interesting for us as we move forward. I feel that we are on a big platform now in terms of getting ourselves out there.
We are in around 30 stores in the Middle East and we are also talking to a major fashion retailer about going into label and onto their website. We are also in three Morleys stores, four John Lewis stores and its website, and we are in discussions with a number of international retailers. We have been careful to expand steadily. This is very important when you are establishing a brand and that you find partners who are the right fit.
What about your own website?
Our own website is trading very well right now. We have an industry champion working on its development.
It’s great there is so much interest in your brand.
The brand has unique handwriting, which is what people are looking for. Increasingly, kids want to be different and they want to have their own style and their own individual personality. And that is what we find works really well for Angel & Rocket. We are very careful to not be too expensive and to really keep our prices as low as we can. Value for money is absolutely key.
When you look at pricing, are there specific brands that are your reference points?
Jigsaw Junior, Ted Baker’s kids’ brand and Joules, as well as Next, the supermarkets and Mothercare, although we have a very, very different product. We focus on detail and put an awful lot of work into fit and construction. All of our prints are 100 per cent unique because we design them ourselves.
It sounds like you are inspired by the trends and not so much a slave to them?
In terms of the “mini-me” trend, that’s not what we do. We use lace fabrics from womenswear trends and from some of the leading designers who have re-launched lace patterns. We have been first to market with a number of things; we launched the scuba fabric, which was fantastic for womenswear about three years ago, and we put that into a little girl’s dress. It was a beautiful print and it was the best seller in John Lewis instantly.
We have talked about the kind of child that wears your clothing. What about the parents – who is your customer?
They tend to shop brands like Whistles, Ted and White Company. We have also clearly got John Lewis’ customers. We are high street because we actually want to grow this brand and create volume. We want it to be quite a big business and, if we can offer something a bit different and a bit unique, I think there is definitely a gap.
Have you seen any real changes in purchasing behaviour from parents?
Yes, the internet has made things very, very different in terms of how people think about shopping, where they want to shop, how they want to shop and what they expect. It just keeps getting more and more exciting. The biggest challenge is getting your brand known.
What is your ambition for Angel & Rocket?
To become big and successful. I am very proud of my career to date and everything I have done, and I have enjoyed it all, which has been quite amazing. But I think to have something that is entirely yours, which you built together as a family, is so special, and that is our ambition.
In numbers: UK Baby & Children’s Market Key Statistics
Expert View: Kate Shafe, owner, Belle & Boo
Where did the idea for Belle & Boo come from?
The business is currently owned by myself, Mandy Sutcliffe, who is the illustrator behind Belle & Boo, and my husband, Patrick. My background is in design, and I was also the marketing director for a London design agency. Its key clients were Disney and Warner Brothers, so I had quite a bit of experience working with characters.
There was no huge start-up investment. The business grew by word of mouth and we managed the operational side of the business from home. Eventually, we needed a bigger space, so we moved to Bristol, which is where we’re now based. Today, the brand can be found across collections of homewares, stationery, children’s books, framed prints and wall stickers. We’re predominantly aimed at little girls between the ages of 2-7 years. The brand does appeal to boys too, but under the age of 3 years.
What is the focus of your brand?
The present focus is around cute characters. Belle, a little girl, and her bunny companion, Boo. Currently we have five picture books, two craft books, five activity books. We have built the world of Belle & Boo with licensing partners that are experts in their fields of china, melamine and clothing. At one point, we worked with 16 licensing partners, which in itself brings challenges, but today we work with five. To be successful at licensing, you need to have mass appeal.
The children’s market is fiercely competitive. How do you differentiate yourselves?
There are thousands of children’s brands, but very few become household names like Beatrix Potter or Christopher Robin. I think Belle & Boo has the opportunity to become a memorable part of childhood. Belle & Boo offers a nostalgic counterpoint. Parents are proud to put Belle & Boo up in the bedroom, to have it in the bathroom, to have the tea towel in the kitchen.
I think the other key difference is that it has relevance with every corner of the globe. Although our brand feels British, people buy from as far afield as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, as well as close to home as Germany and France. Forty per cent of our sales come from overseas.
How do you get feedback from your customers?
We’re socially active. We have 30,000 Instagram followers and 28,000 Facebook followers, and people talk to us via those channels. We do surveys as well, but people also get in touch with us directly.
What’s the profile of your core customer?
They’re all ABC1s, but I would characterise them as customers who wish to break free of mass market brands and are looking for nostalgia. We classify our customers into three segments, which we call Charlotte, Kirsty and Rosemary. Charlotte is the high net worth individual who’s very time pressured, but wants an authentic, premium product with minimal effort. Then there’s Kirsty, who works around school hours with the time to buy the Belle & Boo craft book and will create a beautiful Belle & Boo tent in the garden. And then we have a lot of grandparents (Rosemary) who buy from us because Mandy’s artwork reminds them of the illustrations from their childhood.
Where do you see Belle & Boo going in the next few years?
We have ambition of growing our turnover to £3m. We feel we need to have more of a physical presence, which we’re discussing at the moment.
We also have the vision to grow more properties under the world of Belle & Boo. Mandy is currently working on a new property called the Little Dancers, which is going to begin life as a book and is about five children united by their love of ballet. Interestingly, we are launching that with a book deal with Pan McMillan in the US.
Are there any other brands or retailers you admire?
Yes, most of them are quite small, except for Happy Jackson – I admire how it’s taken a concept that appeals across the board. Then there’s a brand called Lucky Boy Sunday, a really beautiful, luxury knitted art toys and soft furnishings brand with very quirky characters. There’s also an online retailer called Wicked Uncle, which has totally found a gap in the market. It’s aimed at the kind of man who suddenly realises that it’s little Johnny’s birthday and needs a last-minute gift.
Have you seen much change in the market over the time that you’ve been operating?
We’ve changed as our customer has changed and in marketing, we certainly have to work harder.
Retailers like Primark are now offering product range, quality, price and artwork in our space. And I think today, children spend less and less time at home, off doing clubs left, right and centre, so you have to remind parents more about the importance of low-tech family-oriented playtime. We’ve brought out products such as paper kit and we now have a Belle’s dolls house kit, a pirate kit and dress up dolls – all products that you have to use with your child.
Do you think there are things you can do to try to encourage high levels of loyalty?
We’re working on a Belle & Boo kids’ club. You’ll sign in your child and, throughout the year, they’ll receive gifts and parents will be rewarded when they buy from us.
Have you ever considered the bigger retailers as a route to market for your brand?
The problem we find with bigger retailers is there doesn’t seem to be a connection with the buying department. If you take just a duvet and put it on a shelf with loads of other children’s character brands, people don’t know it well enough. That’s why we’ve been more successful in smaller independents, where we can create a Belle & Boo backdrop.
How many independents do you sell into at the moment?
Over 300. We’re also in over 20 countries. Overseas retailers often approach us because their customers keep asking them whether they’re going to stock our range.
How do you attract new customers?
We’ve just engaged with an agency to try to help us with social media and we’re really drilling down into what customers are coming to Belle & Boo for. We’re also looking at a programme with schools and nurseries, where we can send them our books and gift bags.
What are the biggest questions facing your business?
Do we become a high-street business or do we need to look at our product range? Also, we’re looking at our product mix and marketing, all the challenges that every business like us has. The one thing we have that other businesses might not is a beautiful brand that is much loved by anybody who finds it.
Ones to watch: Industry trends
Developments in eco-friendly and biodegradable nappies are spurring growth in the market, as eco-conscious millennials drive parenting ideals. There are a number of options on the market, from biodegradable, disposable nappies to reusable nappies and hybrids in between. The driver behind innovation in this product category is primarily eco-consciousness. Biodegradable nappies will now disappear in six years, as opposed to 500 years for standard nappies. For reusable nappies, the argument is often around reducing landfill, although there is a debate about the amount of carbon emissions and water usage from the many washing cycles. Interestingly, there is even a service market that has grown up around the trend. In New York, where washers and dryers are not a staple of every home, there are several delivery services, such as Diaper Kind and Nature’s Premiere, that pick up dirty, reusable nappies on a weekly basis for laundering. Another driver behind eco-friendly nappies is the concern about exposing babies to unnecessary chemicals, which is often why companies in this space, such as Jessica Alba’s Honest Company and Emma Bunton’s Kit & Kin, have expanded into sensitive and organic skincare products. The absorbent polymers that take so long to biodegrade are also petroleum based, which many feel is too harsh to be so close to a baby’s skin. While no evidence suggests that these polymers are harmful, there is a desire for entirely natural toiletries to protect sensitive skin. Finally, and more frivolously, cloth nappies look quite cool. They are easy to coordinate with outfits and mark an open-minded kind of parent, injecting a little bit of fun into what can be the less glamourous side of parenting.
Customisation – PYO (Pick Your Own)
Another growing trend in the children’s market is personalisation; from furniture and pushchair design, to services offered. As with clothing, millennial parents are pushing the boundaries of what is expected from categories previously related to ‘comfort’ and design. While safety and security remain top priorities for millennial parents, when it comes to furniture and pushchair purchase decisions, they are taking an increasing interest in the design and look. Pushchairs have become a fashion statement and a number of new companies have entered the market with safety, quality and design at the heart of their offering. Some companies, such as Joolz Day 2, Quinny Zap and German-engineered Teutonia, have pushed the envelope further by putting the design process in the hands of the parents, allowing them to customise different aspects such as colour, chassis and wheel type, sun canopy, seat cover and pushchair handles. Brands are delivering this through enhanced service propositions, either in person, through personal shopping services in stores, or online via flexible web tools.
From Superheroes to Fashion Heroes
Childrenswear has evolved from comfort dressing to a more fashion-led proposition. Retailers across the value spectrum have invested in the “mini-me” trend. Millennial parents with increased disposable incomes, opting for smaller family sizes and heavily influenced by celebrity trends, provide the greatest fuel for “fashionising” childrenswear. Parents, more than ever before, want their children dressed in a manner that emulates their own style. This, coupled with the fact that children are growing up faster than before and beginning to develop their own sense of identity at an earlier age, has led to a rejection of clothing lines featuring much-loved TV, cartoon and gaming characters. So, it hardly comes as a surprise that the competition in children’s clothing is heating up. The segment that has seen a lot of activity recently is online premium wear. In 2016, Babyshop acquired Alex and Alexa to form the Luxury Kids Group, a premium children’s retailer whose estimated turnover was EUR 40 million in FY16. Farfetch launched its childrenswear division in March 2016, and has grown from nine brands to over 70, while leading designer childrenswear retailer Childrensalon.com boasts over 280 luxury designer brands online.
Crowdfunding and social media outrage have been the driving forces behind a new trend in children’s toys that seeks to challenge large toy manufacturers’ lack of inclusive toys and positive role models, particularly for girls. While large toy manufacturers are taking some steps to update their approach – i.e. ‘normal’ proportioned Barbie – many feel steps are too slow or miss the mark and have decided to take their own action. Kickstarter has nurtured many notable independent toy makers, connecting them directly with consumer demand. Goldieblox began on Kickstarter with its idea for construction sets for girls. Having far surpassed its funding goal, it has successfully grown a wide portfolio of toys and digital media based on the integration of storytelling and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) principles. Similarly, Lammily Doll, also started on Kickstarter, designing fashion dolls with “normal” human body proportions for both boys and girls, aiming to provide a positive, relatable body image. Ikuzi Dolls, also a Kickstarter baby, challenge another well-established bias in the toy industry, designing dolls to resemble all kinds of girls; ranging from dark to light brown complexion.
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