Children make shopping stressful for parents, which is why creches are now big business. By Karen Falconer
When Ikea first opened in Britain, people were as startled by its family-friendly facilities as they were by its new concept in furniture retailing. Outside was a children's playground; inside was a creche, a world of coloured balls and slides. The attention paid to children by the Swedish firm came to British retailing like a glimpse of enlightenment from the future. Families flocked to the Warrington store.

That was eight years ago. Today, creche-free shopping seems as remote as the retailing dark age when cash tills were manual and queues were 15 people deep. Creches are springing up everywhere: from small units in Safeway, Sainsbury and Asda to mini Disneyworlds in regional shopping centres such as Meadowhall, Thurrock and the Metrocentre. Even the high street department stores are starting to roll them out.

This is the latest weapon in the retail armoury: another way of differentiating one store from another, and an effective means of building customer loyalty while freeing harassed shoppers to spend their limited cash.

Rod Davies, managing director of Nationwide Childcare, threw in his job as an auditor in a bank 10 years ago to pursue what he saw as a gaping commercial opportunity. In the boom-time mid-Eighties, shopping was a favoured hobby but, as a new parent, he found it almost impossible to get out and spend; others, he thought, must be experiencing similar problems.

So Mr Davies launched the Sprog Shop, a children's hairdresser-cum- creche staffed by nursery nurses, which he hoped to expand into shopping centres.

"We were a bit before our time," he said. "Retailers couldn't be bothered, they couldn't see the need for a creche. People were spending money anyway, and it was always, 'tell me, Mr Davies, why we need a creche'."

Sitting in the back room of his Stay and Play creche at Thurrock's Lakeside shopping centre, Mr Davies reeled off the list of retailers he is now working, or in discussions, with: House of Fraser, Sainsbury, Somerfield, Sears. "The economic times changed, people were no longer just spending," he said. By 1989, retailers could no longer take customers for granted and his expertise was in demand. Today, he has eight Stay and Play shopping creches with another 18 opening this year.

He is not alone. "We are caring for half a million children a year in our creches," said Richard Taee, managing director of Supercreche. "This is the public voting with their feet." After setting up prototypes in 1990, Supercreche now has 15 creches with a further 25 due to open in Safeway.

Then there is Matthew Silverstone, owner of Creche on the Move, manager of Ikea's Ball Pond: "Ninety-five per cent of the people we interviewed said they'd use our facilities, either as a creche or play area. The trend can only get bigger as it's what people want, and in the end everyone will conform to what the customer wants."

But is it what the customer wants? Don't many parents feel a twinge of guilt at the idea of leaving their children (normally aged between two and eight) in a strange place, with people they do not know, while they vanish to shop in peace? "I think it's safer than leaving the children at playschool," said Jen Rollinson, from Biggleswade in Bedfordshire, as she picked up her two- and three-year-olds from their two-hour session in Stay and Play on a Wednesday morning. "It's lovely to do a bit of shopping on your own. They enjoy this and hate shopping. They should have them in every shopping centre in Britain."

Her three-year-old looks on with a degree of mistrust, but he has been merrily playing while his mother and grandmother have been away. They are regular users (90 per cent of children return, claimed one creche owner) and go to the creche in the Metrocentre in Gateshead, too. "There, they get tea and biscuits," said Mrs Rollinson. For her, it is clear- cut: good quality childcare at a reasonable cost which allows her to shop.

"If you have children with you, you can't really shop," she went on. "The kids are always creating. It's so stressful that you end up saying, 'that's it, I'm going home'."

While visiting records show that many parents agree with Mrs Rollinson - 16,500 children on the creche's books at Thurrock, 500 a weekend at Ikea - none of the creche providers dispute that, outside peak weekend trading, there is room for improvement. Nor that one of their biggest obstacles is parental fear. "We asked about fear in our customer research," said Derek Maddison, centre manager at Wimbledon's CentreCourt.

To overcome this, the Montessori-style creche has evolved from a straightforward shopping-centre facility: now it also holds parent and toddler groups for the very young and runs six-week pre-booked nursery sessions for children from the age of two. That way, said Mr Maddison, they grow up with the creche and it becomes a part of local life.

Taking a close took at shopping creches should help any parent feel reassured. Staff are generally well trained and the security systems are equal, if not superior, to that of any delinquent detention centre, with their electronic tagging systems and computerised check-in procedures. At Thurrock, they have little red bleepers for parents and white wrist tags for children; secret passwords and a computer database crammed with anything from the name of a child's best friend to the name and number of the family doctor.

Once inside, staff seem caring and obliging. "What's your name?" asked a young woman in uniform as I introduced one of my children."This little boy's called Sam," she added, drawing the two together to ease Jake's shyness. Five minutes later, he was engrossed in a world of electronic cars and trucks.

Although creches are not cheap - about pounds 2 per hour for one child - neither are they money-spinners. Each has to conform to strict criteria set by the 1989 Children's Act and the local authority: number of children to trained staff, length of stay, and the size and number of toilets and washbasins are all stipulated. "This has been the single most important factor in curbing growth," said Mr Taee, adding that without subsidies the cost would be nearer pounds 6 per hour.

But the average supermarket spend grows by pounds 10 to pounds 14 per customer when creche facilities are on offer. There is no more missing out aisles because the children will want biscuits; no more getting home without the essentials you set out for; no more panics because your child has vanished as you spend two seconds too long looking for something on a shelf.

For my money, shopping creches beat shopping tantrums any day. And my children, given the option, would rather spend a couple of minutes getting used to a fun new environment than trailing round the shops, bored for two hours.

Six good creches

Asda, Swanley One of the earliest, so equipment not as new as some: computers, video, ball pond, slides. However, town-centre site, and excellent for local shopping. pounds 1 per child for 30 mins, no reductions for two. Two to eight year-olds. Bleepers. Two-hour maximum stay. 7/10

Thurrock, Play and Stay One of the largest, with all mod cons - from electric cars and computers to general play. Two to eight-year-olds. Bleepers. pounds 1.25 for 30 mins; pounds 1.50 weekend. 9/10

Thurrock, Action Stations The very latest concept: opened two months ago. Vast indoor adventure playground, with hi-tech games. Parents must stay with three to seven year-olds. pounds 4.50 for one and a half hours; pounds 7.50 for three hours. 9/10

Metrocentre, Gateshead Play equipment includes interactive computers, ball pond, Little Tikes, etc. Toilet training facilities. Two to eights. pounds 2.10 for the first hour, then 50p for 15 minutes. Max. three hours. 8/10.

Ikea, all stores Primarily a ball pond, with art and craft facilities. Very popular with children, but max. stay of 30 mins at weekends; 45 mins during week. Tagging system. Free. 8/10

Hippo Club, Royal Victoria Place, Tunbridge Wells, Kent Play equipment, arts and crafts; no computers or ball pond. Manual tagging system. Two to eight year-olds. From pounds 2.50 for first hour; pounds 8.80 per hour for the max four hours.