The mother of all prams

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BRITISH pram manufacturers in the late 1970s and early 1980s might have taken their lead from Henry Ford. Parents could have any colour they liked as long as it was navy-blue, bottle-green, brown or beige.

When Luisa Scachetti became pregnant, she did not like the colours any more than she liked the fabric or the chrome chassis. "The companies were run by men," she says, pointedly. "They looked on prams from the point of view of mechanical engineering rather than design." So she went home to visit her family on the Adriatic coast and came back with an Italian pram, colourful and stylish.

It proved something of a sensation on the streets of Huddersfield. Wheeling her baby around was a slow process because of the number of times she was stopped and asked: "Where did you get that pram?"

The experience gave birth to a baby business called Mamas and Papas, which keeps outgrowing its premises. The 150 staff have just moved into a pounds 3m purpose-built office and warehouse covering 100,000 sq ft of a Huddersfield hillside.

Turnover is around pounds 70m, and Mamas and Papas has a substantial share of the nursery market nationwide through independent retailers and large store groups such as Selfridges, John Lewis, Owen Owen and House of Fraser.

Yet only 14 years ago the Scachettis had nothing more than a suburban pram-and-pushchair shop. It was not even in the town centre, but soon it became a magnet for women from all over the North.

Luisa's first pregnancy, in 1979, coincided with the sale of her parents' family business to an Australian conglomerate. In four years, they had built up a turnover of more than pounds 4m by importing Italian wine, food and toys. Luisa's husband, David, born in Bradford of Italian parents, had learnt how to put his marketing degree into practice by running the toy section.

The move from toys to prams seemed logical, particularly as Luisa had apparently identified a demand. He joined her at the shop and they began to expand rapidly. The trade was suspicious at first. The general view at trade shows was that these Italian importers would not last nine months.

But retailers prepared to take a chance soon realised that they had entered a burgeoning market. As the 1980s progressed, customers with plenty of disposable income refused to see motherhood as the end of style-consciousness. "We pushed the trade upmarket," David says. "We introduced products that retailed at two or three times the market price."

Luisa's trips to Italy became more and more frequent, and she began to come up with her own specific demands for the British market. An in- house design team at Huddersfield interprets her ideas for new lines and fabrics, and her suppliers in Italy are happy to meet her specifications: such has been the decline in the Italian birth rate that a booming market in Britain has provided profitable long-term business for her suppliers. "We get the benefit of their knowledge," she says, "and they get our experience of what the customers want."

Those customers are annually plied with the Mamas and Papas glossy brochure, also produced in-house, which cleverly plays on the Italian combination of style and clucking concern for the well-being of small children.

"In Italy they have new brochures every three months," David says, "but I don't think retailers over here would thank us for that. Already Luisa is working on new concepts for 1997. She never stops searching for new ideas. You have to keep looking ahead in business."