Customer Relations: Toddlers drawn into stores war: Supermarket chains now realise that keeping parents happy, with creches for example, can pay dividends

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COMPANIES generally do not like regulation, and avoid it if they can, but sometimes it is possible to make a virtue out of necessity.

This is what Safeway did in 1992, when it was forced to introduce a creche at a new store in Newlands, Glasgow, because of a requirement imposed by the council's planning department. The creche brought in more custom from the parents of young children, to the benefit of Safeway profits.

The chain has since joined the small but increasing band of retailers and shopping centres that proclaim the commercial advantages of providing a creche. Three Safeway stores now have creches, and another seven will have them by the end of the year. However, this is still a small proportion of the company's 362 stores.

Teresa Wickham, Safeway's director of corporate affairs, says that parents who put a child in a creche spend on average pounds 10 more than they otherwise would. 'The payback is great, not only in monetary terms but also in stress reduction to parents. It takes the conflict out of shopping.'

This will not surprise parents whose toddlers grow impatient as they wait in a long delicatessen queue for a few slices of salami. But many other chain stores do not agree. Sainsbury says its market research shows that creches and play areas are among potential new facilities that its customers do not want.

Other chains, such as Marks & Spencer, refuse to provide creches because of legal problems relating to safety and security.

Providing a creche is just one way of 'improving the retail experience for parents' as the companies put it.

For years, many large stores more or less ignored parents' complaints about everything from the location of children's departments on upper floors to desperate children being refused permission to use staff lavatories. Now 'parent-friendliness' is becoming part of the competitive battleground, and all the major chains have been forced to respond to parents' demands. Safeway ensures that half its checkouts are free of sweet displays; Sainsbury and Tesco have banned sweets from checkouts.

They all stress that staff lavatories are available for use if necessary.

Supermarket trolleys suitable for different ages and combinations of small children are being introduced as fast as manufacturers can make them. Just over half of Tesco stores now have baby-changing rooms; for Safeway, the figure is nearly one in three.

Often it is merely a matter of staff attitudes. Brian Hudspith of Marks & Spencer says the company has invested in extra training. 'Our staff were excellent at dealing with old people, but when it came to children and parents, things were different. We have tried to improve their attitude. We're not perfect, but we are making progress.'

The best facilities are to be found in new, out-of-town developments, where such features as baby-changing rooms and wide aisles can be included at little extra expense.

Older city centre stores often still resemble obstacle courses for buggy-pushing parents, with heavy swing doors, narrow aisles and several floors but no customer lifts. Many multi-level Marks & Spencer stores refuse to locate children's wear on the ground floor - it doesn't make enough money to justify prime space.

Companies are naturally keen to maximise the public relations benefits of their changes. Tesco has featured its new policies in an expensive advertising campaign.

And rivalry creeps in: Marks & Spencer has complained that Sainsbury stole a march by getting its name put on child-friendly trolleys they bought together for a joint development at Hedge End in Southampton. Sainsbury denies any smart moves, and insists it was an innocent error by the trolley manufacturer.

The progress is welcomed by Sue Cavanagh of the Women's Design Service, which has campaigned strongly for parent-friendly shops. But she feels it is a case of the 'inverse care law' - those that most need don't get.

'New flagship super-duper stores get the facilities,' she says. 'But they often don't want to do it in poorer areas, where it is most needed.'

Ms Cavanagh would like to see planning policy used to ensure a consistent parent-friendly environment right across the country.

The stores resist planning regulation, since they want to maintain flexibility. Nevertheless, change will undoubtedly continue, resulting not only from the forces of competition but also from good and bad publicity.

Next month the Tommy's Campaign, a charity which raises funds for medical research into prematurity, stillbirth and miscarriage, will announce its 'Parent Friendly Awards', which will expose the best and the worst of Britain's high street chains.

(Photograph omitted)