Stores try baby-sitter service to lure moms back in
Monday, November 17, 2003
ATLANTA -- Rita Sapp looked relieved as she dropped her 3-year-old son off at a play center in a Rich's department store.
Andrew Sapp was grinning too, eyeing the toys inside the center where the department store babysits children while parents shop.
"I can't shop normally with him, but he has a blast in there," his mother said.
The idea of baby-sitting services is catching on as traditional department stores cater to mothers, once among their most loyal customers but increasingly drawn to more convenient discounters like Wal-Mart and Target. Department storeshave been losing market shares to discount retailers for more than a decade.
Rich's-Macy's tested the Playaway baby-sitting center a year ago in an Atlanta suburb. Now the centers have been expanded to five stores in the Atlanta area, with more planned.
"Lives have changed for women," said Ellen Fruchtman, spokeswoman for Rich's-Macy's, part of Federated Department Stores Inc., the nation's largest department store chain. "We believe women still do really like to shop, but they want it to be easier."
For the past few years, department stores tried to compete with retailers with lower prices and conveniences such as shopping carts or central check-outs. Now some department stores are backing off that approach in favor of more services for adult women, their core shoppers.
Nordstrom stores provide a nursing lounge for mothers of small children, a quiet room off the women's restroom with clean changing tables, diaper vending machines and a sofa or two. Nordstrom also is expanding its play area in the children's clothes section, adding salt-water fish tanks and activities for children while their parents shop.
"To have activities going on in our kids area is something our customers are really looking for," Nordstrom spokeswoman Kylie Allensworth said.
Department stores were also motivated to focus on mothers after a failed attempt to compete with mall-based clothing stores that cater to teens.
"They all got excited about chasing that younger customer, and all they did was alienate the 40-year-olds who were their most loyal shoppers," said Marshal Cohen, a retailing analyst with consultanting firm NPD Group. "Now they're taking a step back and asking, 'How can we reconnect with women?' That's what you're seeing here."
Another problem driving away middle-age women was that department stores were hard to get into and out of quickly. Cohen said the average shopper spends one to two hours on a shopping trip, but moms usually spend less than an hour.
If a department store can get moms to stay longer -- and employees at the Rich's-Macy's Playaways say parents almost always use the full two hours they're permitted to leave their children at the centers -- then Playaways will be worth the effort.
But parents can't dump the children and take off to other stores. Parents get a pager when they drop off their children, and it goes off if they leave the store or if the children get fussy or need a bathroom break. Only children ages 3 to 8 are allowed.
A digital picture is taken of parent and child, with only that adult allowed to pick up the child. Both are given matching wristbands like a hospital nursery.
A market researcher who focuses on women's shopping, Carrie McCament, said she expects more department stores to target moms. McCament's marketing group, called Frank About Women, found in a recent survey that women enjoy shopping trips less than they used to.
"I have to go to the grocery store tonight, and I'm dreading it with two kids," McCament said. "If anybody can make it fun to shop when you've got kids, well, that would be such a hit with moms."
Rich's-Macy's is analyzing the purchases of moms who use Playaway to see if they spend more because they have a full two hours to shop child-free.
"We get customers all the time who say they plan to stay 15 minutes, then they come back an hour and a half later," said Kelly Kucic, a former kindergarten teacher who manages the Playaway center at Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, Ga. "Mom wants to shop for clothes by herself. She wants more time in the dressing room. She wants a quiet atmosphere."
"It's awesome," said Ashley Hutcheson of Stockbridge, who dropped off her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. "I get to wander around without worrying about them tearing up things."
On the Net
Frank About Women: www.frankaboutwomen.com