The birth rate may have fallen slightly, along with sales of nappies, but a c-store retailer’s baby aisle can still provide solace for time-poor parents
Preparing lunchtime sandwiches before work. Brewing up some coffee at the office. Driving to the supermarket for a big shop. These are all everyday tasks that many busy consumers say they don’t have time for anymore. And, as life seems to accelerate each year, statistics show that there’s another activity people apparently can’t spare a second to do: making babies.
ONS figures reveal that after years of steady growth, the number of live births in England and Wales decreased in 2015 to 696,271 – a drop of 0.2%. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to make nappy brands and baby food manufacturers nervous.
Mintel reports that nappy sales value fell 5.5% between 2014-2015. It ascribes this fall mainly to the end of the recent baby boom, but also to the effect of bargain online outlets and the rise of the discounters.
Still, that shouldn’t be any reason for c-store retailers to have sleepless nights about the infant-care sector. Though the wider market may be a little less fertile than before, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Whatever the birth rate, if you can match the right offer to the right demographic, yummy mummies (and delectable daddies) could be aiming their buggies at your store.
That’s certainly been the case for Jerry Tweney, owner of Prestbury Village Stores in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Since the shop’s launch in August 2017 he’s been busy developing fresh ways to capture the local area’s parent pound.
“My mum was sat in the coffee area just the other day and she commented how many people now come in with prams,” he says.
“We didn’t necessarily get those in the first couple of weeks, but now we’re becoming known and we’ve got that steady flow of parents.”
Think missions when catering for babies and toddlers
Nailing the baby-care market isn’t just about selling nappies. Today’s parents are seeking all kinds of on-the-go food for their little ones, which means there’s an opportunity to stock much more than just milk, as Roz Davies, head of category development for Danone Early Life Nutrition, explains.
“The golden rule is to cater to the different missions that mums are on when shopping in a convenience store.
“This could be a top-up shop, looking for dinner for tonight. or wanting food on the go,” she says.
“Therefore, we recommend that retailers setting up their baby feeding section cover breakfast, main meals and desserts, as well as snacks.”
She adds that Aptamil currently has a 43% share of milk sales in convenience, while Cow & Gate holds a share of 54% in their segment (IRI).
The trend in the wider market may be for consumers to bulk-buy online bargains. However, Davies says that, because shoppers want their little ones to try lots of different foods, there’s definitely space for c-stores to be involved in the category.
“Looking specifically at the baby feeding category, shoppers may not wish to buy in bulk if they are at a stage of trying something new, or moving into a new feeding stage with their little one,” she says.
“For example, if they are just starting to wean, buying many of a single product could be seen as risky. It can take eight to 10 exposures for baby to accept an unfamiliar or previously disliked food item.
“Also remember that mums are brand loyal when it comes to feeding their baby: 87% of mums will buy only one brand of milk and 62% of mums will take their shop elsewhere if their preferred brand is unavailable (MSL Regional Study).”
To attract these customers Jerry has added a dedicated baby aisle to the store. A metre bay with just seven shelves, it’s not huge, but covers enough space to pack in about 55-60 essential lines, ranging from baby wipes to lotions.
“It wasn’t there before when the store was a Premier,” he continues. “We’ve got a local infant and junior school nearby and I have to say that [the bay] is definitely well-used. I’m really pleased with the way that it’s taken off.
“We haven’t gone crazy in terms of space, but these items (apart from the nappies, which go at the bottom) tend to be small, so you can pack a lot into a relatively small space.”
He says that having it has made a big difference. “We seem to now be a stop-off destination for the people who are walking past and need those bits. It works for us.”
In designing the bay, Jerry’s put some thought into a parent’s wider needs, and well as baby’s. “What we’ve done is added magazines related to the category around the bay,” he says. “So, we’ve put mother & baby magazines and pre-school magazines into the mix.
“They go hand in hand with trying to capture more of that parent market. You know what it’s like: once the baby’s off to sleep it’s time to catch up on what’s happening in the real world!”
Beyond the baby bay, the store’s clever use of space has also helped make it buggy-friendly – a big plus for parents. “When I took over I removed two aisles – including one from the front of the shop. So we’ve got a big, clear area where people can easily turn a buggy around and wider aisles mean it’s easier to push them around inside.
“We’ve also gone for high shelving rather than stacks. I can see that retailers want to grab every sale [with stacks], but it makes it hard for customers to navigate the store, especially with a buggy. Children can wander around here and parents haven’t got any fears about them falling over anything.”
Out of the kitchen into c-stores
Convenience retailers who stock the right brands and products have a great opportunity to continue to capitalise on parents’ growing demand for baby food in the impulse and convenience channel, points out David Cantle, brand manager for Ella’s Kitchen at distributor RH Amar.
Working with Ella’s Kitchen since 2010, RH Amar’s decision to introduce the brand’s first cash-and-carry shelf-ready packs in 2013 allowed convenience retailers to buy into the brand in even greater numbers as they were able to buy lower quantities than had previously been possible.
“We haven’t looked back,” adds Cantle, “and we recently celebrated Ella’s Kitchen’s 11 consecutive years of double-digit growth across all retail channels with the brand’s first listings in Booker, making it more accessible than ever before for independent retailers looking to capitalise on the biggest opportunity in baby food.”
He adds that the impulse channel continues to outperform the market average in baby food. He reports that value sales are up by 8.2% over the past year, while Ella’s Kitchen is now the number one brand in impulse with a 37% share of all sales and growing by +46% (IRI).”
Making sure that customers have space to shop with a toddler in tow is important. But what are they actually looking for in-store?
According to Mintel, if you’re short on space, toddler snacks could be a key stock. It reports that sales are up 15% year on year, driven by a focus on health.
Steph Latham from Lostock Hall Spar in Lancashire has definitely pegged toddler snacks as a solid seller in the category.
“The toddler snacks do tend to be quite popular with parents,” she explains.
“It’s particularly the Organix Apple Rice Cakes and the Carrot Stix that sell. I think that’s because people want something that’s healthy for their toddlers, that’s not necessarily crisps or chocolate.
“There are certainly people who come into the store just because they know we do them.”
When parents are rushing between play group and work, convenience is also important. With this in mind, Steph identifies Dairylea Dunkers and Munchables as two popular on-the-go solutions.
“They do well because, again, they’re seen as healthy, and also because they make a quick, easy lunch that doesn’t create loads of mess in the pushchair. They do really well.”
This current emphasis on health means that stores can be rewarded for making parents’ lives easier by not constantly ‘pushing’ confectionery into young hands.
At Heath Stores in Horsmonden, Kent, Kate Mills makes a point of offering healthier choices in among the sweet stuff.
“One of the things that we do is make sure that the Bear fruit treats are there among the other confectionery,” she says.
“Parents are grateful because they can steer their kids towards something healthier, but the toddlers still perceive that they’re getting a treat. It’s all about making life a little easier for them,” she says.
A big positive about offering baby and toddler products is that they can help you connect with the local community. And sometimes being part of that community means making ethical choices that might lose sales in the short-term, yet can win goodwill that lasts for a lifetime.
Take nappies. Kate says that they do a small range for “emergency purchases” but don’t do the big packs.
“We actively encourage people to visit the local pharmacy for those, who do a bigger nappy range than us anyway,” she says.
“That way we’re not taking sales away from them and we’re keeping the money in the local community.”
Jerry adds to this point: “When I was doing c-store visits to prepare for our opening I saw some stores doing nappies at about £7.
“Now, that’s obviously people capitalising on a distress purchase, but I don’t think you have to go down that road. There’s an audience to be won here, and if the price is right for nappies then they’ll come and use you for other things.
“Put simply, if you go silly on price then you’ll lose them as a long-term customer. We’ve got five lines of Pampers, including a price-marked pack at £4.99. It’s all about having that ‘reasonable’ pricing.”
As Jerry points out, c-stores with low footfall might see other stock as better potential sellers. But there’s no beating just how grateful customers are to find you when their little darling has unleashed a ‘poonami’ that’s stunk up the park.
“You do see people running in in a panic and saying: ‘Have you got nappies or baby wipes?’,” Jerry chuckles.
“It’s a really useful category to have, because once people see that you’ve got those items, they then remember you and the store becomes a destination for those purchases.”