There are few mysteries of the British high street stranger than the demise of Mothercare. After all, which other major retailer can boast that it has no direct competition and that it attracts, almost by instinct, 95% of its target market?
In marketing terms, too, its proposition appears compellingly simple.
First, leverage consumer trust by offering parents-to-be advice and guidance on preparing for baby's arrival. Then capitalise on that relationship by providing unrivalled products and customer service in the child's early years.
But there has been no success story. Since it separated from sister chain Bhs and emerged from Storehouse in 2000, problems with stock control and product availability, tired store formats and poor customer service have kept shoppers away.
There have been three profits warnings in under a year. Rumours of a possible takeover bid by venture capitalists or former Bhs chief executive Terry Green, and the departure earlier this year of chief executive Chris Martin, have done little to revive staff morale.
The growth of competition has been an equally important factor in Mothercare's slump. Earlier this year, Adams Childrenswear signed a major deal that takes its brand into Sainsbury's supermarkets, while Marks & Spencer is working on the Zip Project, a specialist kidswear venture that will include the launch of a range designed and endorsed by David Beckham.
Next, meanwhile, has transferred its success at merchandising stylish adultwear to childrenswear. And Tesco, the UK's largest retailer, has not been slow to act, with the launch of a dedicated club aimed at fostering loyalty among expectant and new mothers. The obstacles facing Mothercare are formidable.
Winning over customers
But there are signs that things could change. In the past year, Mothercare has hired WHSmith's top marketer, Andy King, to fill the new role of director of marketing, international and direct. King, in turn, raided his former employer to poach Tony Holdway, who joined Mothercare as head of advertising and promotions.
Holdway says the task is "to put the 'care' back into Mothercare, and to give customers a reason for visiting and revisiting our stores".
Next month, the company will unveil an ambitious repositioning campaign for Mothercare's 245 UK shops. Instead of simply stacking hundreds of unexplained products on shelves, Mothercare will provide guides - both human and paper-based - offering product advice.
"We operate in low-growth markets such as pushchairs and babywear, which means that if we are to grow as a business it has to be achieved by winning market share from competitors, says King.
The overhaul will see a complete revamp of Mothercare's in-store communications, created by AMV Advance, under the strapline 'Because little things matter'.
Adopting a similar strategy to fellow high street stalwart Woolworths, Mothercare is attempting to add modernity to all its distribution channels, from its catalogues and web sites to the stores themselves.
"The objective is to contemporise our brand image and address perceptions of style and value for money, says Holdway. "We are taking a more thoughtful approach by talking to customers according to the lifestage of their child. Consumers who come to Mothercare have a range of needs."
For the first time, Mothercare will publish micro-catalogues for customer segments such as 'Preparing for Baby' and 'Summer Toys'. It will also actively promote its nursery plan, which allows shoppers to spread the cost of purchases.
Perhaps most importantly, it will begin letting customers into what it calls 'Mothercare secrets'. These are the extra touches such as vests that are long enough to stay tucked in while children are playing, and socks designed so they don't catch on youngsters' toenails. Mothercare believes these are the products that give it a differential.
According to King, the revamp has three primary goals: to increase footfall from the current level of a million customer visits each week; to improve from 56% the ratio of visitors who buy products; and to boost average customer spend well beyond the current level of £19.
King admits Mothercare is looking at mechanics to keep customers loyal, but denies that a loyalty card scheme is on the agenda.
"We are doing research over the next few weeks that will influence the direction we take, he says.
With an additional 35 larger out-of-town stores on the way during the next three years and its town centre prototype store about to be unveiled in Hammersmith, London, King believes Mothercare's well-publicised problems are in the past.
In the context of the firm's recent history, few would share King's optimism.
The company has one of the smaller marketing budgets on the high street and there are no plans for a return to above-the-line advertising, the previous campaign being run through McCann-Erickson last year.
But analysts believe that if the new stores deliver on their promise, and Mothercare can finally resolve the problems of stock management that have left thousands of customers searching in vain for the products they want, then a genuine recovery could be on the way. Only then would an unlikely failure begin to be transformed into the success story that so many in the industry have long anticipated.
MOTHERCARE: FIVE-YEAR SUMMARY
Year ended 31 March 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Turnover (pounds m) 1335 1329 1266 509 427
Pre-tax profit (pounds m) 125 80.3 -389 8.40 0.10
Normal earn per share (p) 59.8 46.8 -0.65 -3.73 6.30