Mothercare's reversal of fortunes has been well documented in the press recently. One of the UK's best known retail chains with stores on the high street and at out of town retail parks, Mothercare aims to provide everything you need from before birth through infancy and up to age eight. Facing strong competition from discount retailers and fashion stores who are now catering for the very young, Mothercare has implemented management and strategic changes that have had successful impact on the business. The highly collaborative process that has produced the Humphrey's Corner range of products is a good example of how Mothercare has raised its game and how licensing can help a retailer create a valuable point of difference.
Typically, Mothercare offers three categories of licensed characters in its clothing range: perennial classics such as Pooh and Thomas, contemporary characters such as Disney Princess and Postman Pat and the hot 'must haves'.
When Mothercare first started working with artist Sally Hunter and her licensing agent, The Licensing Company, it was with a 'clean slate' mentality. Gillian Berkmen explains the attraction of Humphrey was its illustrative style, family appeal and the traditional values that Mothercare associates so closely with. It was to be incorporated into the store offering as a new 'hot' property aiming at the core age profile of 0-3.
The first, exclusive, clothing was created by the Mothercare design team in collaboration with the artist and since then the range has extended and expanded over three years to include bedlinen, gifts, hardware such as moses baskets, nightwear and outerwear. Gillian says, 'the approach and USP of the range is in the exceptional execution of the character.
We are passionate about Humphrey so we get the character treatment right, but there is also an added fashion twist.'
Her words hide the huge efforts involved. In the last two years the Humphrey line has been made more contemporary and given its own colour palette, and the designers have worked hard to create synergy across clothing and non-clothing lines through colour and styling. They pay particular attention to detailing, something Gillian refers to as 'putting the Mothercare handwriting in every piece' 'The garments must be special, even without the character on them,' she says. 'Embroidery, finishing, embellishments and even the labels and tags are all part of telling a contemporary, quality story'.
Mothercare also feels it's not enough to create individual items so complete outfits are made using Humphrey.
The artist is involved in every stage, sometimes creating new artwork. Humphrey's has now become one of Mothercare's staple characters, successful because he appeals to fashionable consumers who have the same traditional values as Mothercare.
Gillian explains that the work with this character has been exemplary for other Mothercare lines: 'It's the first time we have developed a character so collaboratively with the artist in this way. It has really helped raise the bar in terms of execution and product development.'
Earlier this year, Mothercare stores hosted readings by Sally Hunter, events which brought consumers closer to the character and evoked, Gillian says, a magical and calm moment in the middle of a typical shopping day. The iniative was part of National Reading Week and will be repeated next year.
In store, there are pros and cons of merchandising character products all together. 'It can be a dilemma,' says Gillian. 'We currently merchandise all Humphrey clothing together and may, in the future, create a complete Humphrey's Corner room set in bigger stores. The question is not whether its possible, but if it pleases a customer who is short on time and expects to find all the bedding or clothing products together.'
Looking ahead, the Humphrey's Corner line will continue to grow. Gillian's team is considering its appeal to slightly older children and is looking to place Humphrey in more character situations.
Mothercare is also launching a Dora the Explorer line in late winter and has announced a wider commitment to furniture for children and a full gift range.