View from City Road: Nursing Mothercare back to health

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The Independent Online
Mothercare must be one of the most shameful cases of infant neglect in modern times. Since the mid-1970s a once healthy and adored baby has been allowed to degenerate into an unloved and poisonous brat.

Dismal service, dreadful stock availability, old-fashioned styles, lousy store layouts, plunging staff morale and high prices - Mothercare has all the charm of a mewling pukester at 3 o'clock on a cold winter's morning.

New foster parents arrived last year in the shape of Ann Iverson, Liz Davies (of Next fame) and Patricia Manning (from Woolworth). The early signs are that the child can be rehabilitated. Despite its past repulsiveness, almost nine out of 10 first- time expectant mums still enter the shops. Many walk out empty-handed never to return, but the franchise obviously still has appeal.

The disciplines already drilled into BhS, its elder sibling in the Storehouse group, are now being applied to Mothercare. Whereas once you could choose between 54 different feeding bottles, the choice is down to a manageable dozen. The total number of lines is being halved.

Mothercare is experimenting at its new store in Watford, a kind of laboratory for retailing ideas, complete with talking trees and other theatricals.

The Watford store has achieved a 15 per cent increase in sales per square foot. Some of the best ideas there are now being rolled out in store refits in Cardiff, Marble Arch in London and Gateshead. Planned capital spending of pounds 10m this year will be lifted if the ensuing sales increases justify it.

Ms Iverson's early reforms, including more competitive pricing, are starting to produce the goods. Sales grew by 10 per cent last year, albeit from a low base. Mothercare is recapturing market share lost to the likes of Sears-owned Adams and Kingfisher's Woolworth in the 1980s.

But there is a colossal task ahead. As every parent knows, just when you think he's finally dropped off to sleep the little charmer starts howling again. It may be a long night.

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