Retailers are going gaga for babies. After all, they’re big business.
With the opening left after the collapse of Babies R Us and Toys R Us, retailers have been eager to attract that booming baby market.
“Consumers want the best for their babies so are willing to spend on both everyday essentials and more infrequent purchases like cribs and clothing,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of retail consultancy GlobalData. “This is a consumer retailers want to attract.”
To that end, several big names have filled the void that came with the loss of the iconic baby and toy stores by expanding their offerings to cater to parents and parents-to-be.
Both Target and Walmart enhanced their websites and added new brands to their stores. J.C. Penney added baby departments in 500 stores last August.
Online sales of baby products is a $7.5-billion industry, according to a March 2018 IBISWorld report. Amazon leads the market with 27.5% share, followed by Target at 5.8%.
Overall, approximately $65.4 billion of baby products were sold in the U.S. in 2018, according to GlobalData.
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Walmart also is looking to grow its baby business.
On Thursday, the retail giant announced the launch of an all-new baby registry aimed to make the “incredibly overwhelming” process of starting a registry easier with a personal touch, said Lauren Uppington, Walmart eCommerce U.S. vice president and general manager for baby, in a blog post.
“The new registry includes an adorable chatbot, Hoo the Owl, who gets to know registrants by asking them questions, including due date, gender (or gender neutral), state and preferred nursery theme, in a fun and engaging way,” Uppington said.
In the blog post, Uppington said Walmart has added new mobile enhancements for the parents and for gift-givers on its app.
Making changes and investments
Babies R Us and Toys R Us closed all 735 stores last June after their parent company failed to rebound despite a last-ditch effort to restructure under bankruptcy protection.
Former competitors have brought up how the closings have helped them grow in the baby and toy categories during recent quarterly earnings calls with analysts.
Last summer, J.C. Penney began stocking cribs, high chairs and other baby products in 500 locations, most chosen because of their proximity to now-shuttered Babies R Us stores.
“We saw strong performance in both our toys and baby apparel and gear businesses, a clear indication that our efforts to enhance these categories and capture market share from competitor closings are working,” Trent Kruse, J.C. Penney senior vice president of finance said in a Feb. 28 call with analysts.
Target officials said in a call with analysts on March 5 that the company’s effort over the past two years has been paying off.
The company expanded its Cloud Island brand in January to include a line of essentials like wipes, toiletries and diapers with prices ranging from less than a dollar to $21.99. They’ve also expanded clothing lines Cat & Jack and Art Class.
“We made big investments to make sure that we were going to garner market share in those important categories,” Target CEO Brian Cornell told analysts. “It’s going to drive long-term benefits for us, as families come to Target more frequently for toys and items for babies and kids.”
Select Target stores have revamped their baby department with lower shelves, displays of sample nurseries and areas where parents can test out products such as strollers and car seats.
Walmart remodeled the baby departments in more than 2,000 stores so customers can touch and feel items and test drive strollers in stores.
“We know that these are also popular registry items for first-time moms, so by having them available to touch and feel, customers can feel confident in adding them to their registry,” Walmart said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Gene Castagna, chief operating officer of Bed Bath & Beyond, which also owns Buy Buy Baby, spoke of how the retailer benefited from the closings in September and in January earnings calls. There are about 135 stores in the U.S. and Canada.
“The baby business across the Bed Bath & Beyond side, baby side, baby stores continues to perform well,” he said in January.
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Even before Toys R Us announced it was closing all of its stores, Oakland, California-based Babylist started adding more product videos to its platform, said Natalie Gordon, CEO and founder.
“Most new families in America don’t have a local baby store where they can go and push the stroller,” Gordon said, adding the goal is that customers “should be able to understand the stroller better from a video than seeing it in real life.”
A former Amazon developer, Gordon said she started the universal baby registry before her son Max was born in 2011 because she was looking for gifts not sold in stores and available to put on other registries – home-cooked meals, someone to walk her German Shepherd and a month of a cloth diaper service.
According to a recent Babylist report, 15% of Babylist users put nontraditional requests or favors on their lists.
For Jillian Kirschner, of Swampscott, Massachusetts, that request was newborn photo shoots for her two young sons.
“It was really nice that it just linked to the photographer’s website and you could put the details on the package you were looking for,” Kirschner said.
Retailers’ online presence allows them to showcase a more robust selection of products than they display in their physical stores, which was the case before Toys R Us left.
Marina Gregory, of Saratoga Springs, New York, actually finds it more convenient to shop online. A mother of two boys, Gregory used Babylist before her 4-month-old was born.
“In our marketplace today, I think people are more and more primed for online shopping,” she said. “You might not be able to see it in person, but if there’s free shipping everywhere, you can have it at your house in two days. And most retailers are super open with their customer service and returns.”
Walmart’s new registry has mobile enhancements to make it easier to start a registry and manage it, Uppington said.
“We want to be there for mom and dad with everything they are looking for, and through experiences that make shopping for those items easy and fun,” Uppington said.
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Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko