Yorkshire determination and Italian design – it's a winning combination

Mamas & Papas, the UK's best-selling nursery brand, has been going strong for 30 years. Alison Shepherd meets the family behind the business
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The Independent Online

Back in 1979, Luisa Scacchetti was a typical expectant mother, searching for the perfect pushchair.

But, unhappy with the uninspiring prams on offer in Huddersfield, she went back to to her native Italy to find one. And she did – a multicoloured corduroy one. "Our first prams were corduroy and came in a wide range of colours – pinks, greens, blues. There was nothing like them anywhere over here." says Luisa, 59, in an accent that fuses her Italian roots with the 40-odd years spent in Yorkshire.

Realising that they weren't the only parents to want style as well as functionality, two years later Luisa and her husband David opened their first shop, called Mamas & Papas, selling Italian imports. Three decades on, Amanda, the baby who inspired what has become the UK's best-selling nursery brand, is head of design and her younger sister Olivia is head of creative and marketing.

It is this Italian-style, keeping it in the family that is one of the biggest factors in the success of Mamas & Papas, according to the founder.

"We have one single vision that is very personal to us and which we are passionate about. It has stayed the same for 30 years. The girls were brought up in and around the business and they share our passion," says Luisa.

Finishing her thought, David chips in: "Other companies have to chop and change their vision according to whoever owns them at the time. We don't. We are able to make all our decisions for the right reasons, not particularly financial ones. The whole business is like one big family."

The company expanded by word of mouth, and other local independent retailers began to stock the Mamas & Papas-branded baby equipment. The refusal of the larger national shops to stock the products, and their failure to recognise and react to the success of the fledgling company, may well be a pointer to why so many retailers today are suffering and why M&P flourishes.

"There is no doubt it is very tough out there," says David, 60, ruminating on the plight of Mothercare. But his company's soaring profits, estimated to be £4.7m last year rising from £1.9m in 2009, and record sales of £125.9m, go some way to undermine his sympathy.

And the future is looking equally bright. "We still plan to open three or four more shops in the UK this year, and our strategy over the next five years is to expand into 50 countries, including franchises in the Middle East, Greece, Malta and Japan," he says. Add the recent tie-up with the US giant Babies R Us and an autumn launch in Hungary, and it's obviously not quite so tough for some.

The family ethos which is so important to the Scacchettis is integral to how they treat customers, staff and suppliers, says Luisa.

"We have always been close to our customers. We listen to what they want and try to give it to them," she says. At first there were the friendly chats in the shop. Now customers are regularly interviewed by staff across the country.

"Parents stress that they want quality and attention to detail. People are still willing to pay for that, because they know our all products, from prams to clothes, will last beyond the first child."

That attention to detail is provided by Luisa, who personally selects every one of the products on M&P's shelves, working very closely with all the suppliers, with frequent visits to factories on the Continent and in China. The Hong Kong office ensures that all the Chinese suppliers work within stringent rules on quality and employment. "Our relationships with suppliers are very important to us," says David.

"We need to ensure the brand's quality is as important to them as it is to us. We are still dealing with the two Italian factories that supplied our first shop in 1981."

The products sold in its 56 UK stores, 220 concessions and online store are renewed twice a year, with old lines ditched, new ones brought in and designs tweaked. "The redesigns can be just about colours. We follow the world of fashion very closely and translate the trends there to our products," says Luisa.

Anyone who doubts there can be fashion trends in something as apparently utilitarian as a pushchair need only look at the rise and fall of the massive three-wheeled buggy, favoured by stars such as Madonna and Tom Cruise, which clogged our pavements for a few years in the early Noughties, but then all but disappeared. And then there's the rise of the travel system, which incorporates a detachable car seat on a pushchair chassis.

"Pushchairs are a statement of who the parents are, like a car. They reflect their personalities and lifestyles, so we have to keep up, or lead those trends," Luisa adds.

Keeping ahead is one of M&P's strengths, says David, thanks to its "unique investment" in its in-house research and development team, led by Amanda, and based in the Huddersfield headquarters. "We have just expanded our R&D centre. Now we have 100 people dedicated to creating the next generation of equipment, from design to working prototypes. We are looking at how we can mix metals to enable us to keep our prams strong, but reduce weight and cost."

He adds that in the current climate, when money is tight, parents should not have to compromise on quality. "We are working hard with our suppliers to find ways to cut the costs through design or choice of materials. The one thing we will not alter, though, is that we will continue to use 100 per cent cotton."

M&Ps' 1,500 staff are also encouraged to treat customers as family by providing the advice and support new parents used to get from their relations. "We are dedicated to providing our customers with the advice that they need to make the right choice for them and their families," says Luisa. "Our shop staff are trained to ask all about the parents' lifestyle, the sort of area they live in, the car they drive, whether they like to walk in the country. All these factors can affect what products will best suit them. We do not want anyone to buy just anything. It has to be right."

Every new member of staff is given a 12-week induction into the brand before being allowed near a customer so that they can talk knowledgeably about every one of 3,000 products in nine categories. The training is updated with each line revision.

Although Luisa tries to spend every Friday afternoon with her young grandchildren – no doubt already succession planning – neither Scacchetti has plans to retire or sell up. She says, "We enjoy it too much. The staff tease me that when I'm 85 I'll still be doddering around demanding to check all the stock. But it's what we love."