The high street is not a friendly place this year. Giants with stores in every town centre are being felled. Mothercare, for example, struggles on, but is closing a quarter of its stores, and falling profits (£8.8m this year down from £32.5m a year ago) are making shareholders uneasy. Small and medium-sized retailers, therefore, have opportunities to fill gaps left by the likes of Habitat, Thorntons and Mothercare, as they shut stores at a steady rate. And some businesses, no longer small, but with the nimbleness and the adaptability that, arguably, remaining privately owned can provide, are able to ride out the storm with much less loss of life.
Mamas & Papas is an unusual combination. A £131m company, but one that’s 100% privately owned; a brand with significant international presence, but that’s still managed by its founders; a significant franchise operation, but one in which the culture of a family business is carefully preserved. Husband-and-wife team David and Luisa Scacchetti have been at the helm since 1981, when Huddersfield-based Luisa struggled to find stylish baby and nursery goods when pregnant with her first daughter Amanda, eventually having to return to her native Italy to source them.
From this gap in the market, the Scacchettis have got the business to its present state by spotting opportunities and being willing and fearless enough to adapt the business to take advantage of them. For this reason, in the last 30 years Mamas & Papas has been importer, wholesaler, retailer, franchisor, manufacturer and exporter and today, David admits, it’s “a complex business”.
From wholesale to retail
It wasn’t always thus. When Luisa started shipping in goods from Italy, Mamas & Papas was a single boutique in Huddersfield. The success it saw meant that relatively quickly the business morphed into a wholesaler, selling its imported products, and soon products designed in-house too, to big names in retail. For this small business to be making waves was surprising, but what it was doing was quietly revolutionary, and would eventually change the maternity and nursery sector on a fundamental level.
“What was around at the time was all quite functional,” explains David. “But when you’re having a baby, there’s a strong emotional element; you’re excited, it’s a great moment in your life. From a trade point of view, we introduced fashion and we introduced emotion, which was lacking at that time.”
“We changed the nursery industry,” says Luisa, adding as an example: “The pushchair became a fashion accessory; almost like a car – it presents who you are.”