Customer spotlight: a family-run baby shop celebrates its 40th birthday with surging online sales

A Bristol family-run baby shop celebrating its 40th birthday is booming as royals and celebrities drive surging sales of ‘designer’ nursery gear.

Baby & Co is best known for its shop in Temple Street which has been a fixture in the town since 1982.

But that is only part of the story and it is one of the country’s top ten independent nursery retailers with a fast-growing online operation run out of a warehouse in Nailsea catering for the 680,000 babies born in the UK each year.

The business was founded by Ian Mills, 75, and his wife Clare, 69, in 1982 as Keynsham Pram and Cycle Centre before changing the name to the snappier Buggies and Bikes in the 1990s.

They dropped the bikes 20 years ago and stuck to selling high quality mid-range and upmarket prams and nursery products, rebranding to Baby & Co.

Their son Jeff Mills, 46, joined as a director in 2002 and all three run the business together with Ian overseeing the shop as managing director, Clare taking care of the book-keeping and buying and Jeff running the online operation.

Expectant parents are spending up to £2,000 on prams, car seats and other nursery items as celebrities with young children such as Hollywood stars Bradley Cooper and Anne Hathaway and model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and new royal parents such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle fuel demand for more expensive ‘designer’ nursery gear.

The most expensive pram and ‘travel systems’ at Baby & Co can cost as much as £1,700 and fashion brands such as Fendi, Dior and Versace are developing nursery ranges to capitalise on the boom for upmarket products.

Jeff Mills,  said: “It is wonderful to be celebrating 40 years. Some of our customers are the grandchildren of the parents who first came to the shop when we opened.

“The nursery industry has changed so much and become much more fashion based over the last 20 years.

“Celebrities and royals have all fuelled demand for more expensive brands. A high profile new mum such as the Duchess of Cambridge will be seen out using a brand such as Bugaboo and we will get lots of orders for the same product off the back of that exposure.

“Before prams were seen as a functional product and parents would just need to know about practical issues such as how heavy it was.

“Now they see a celebrity pushing a particular fashion brand of pram and say: ‘I want that, too.’

“Prams are seen as a luxury product by a lot of expectant parents and they want to be seen pushing a ‘cool’ pram when the baby is born.

“That works for us because we have always sold premium products and a lot of our stockists will keep their designer gear exclusive to respected independents such as us, so parents cannot buy some of the more expensive items on online only retailers.

“The other trend is towards suppliers using more sustainable fabrics. There is a lot of talk in the industry about the environmental impact of nursery products. I see this becoming a more important factor over the coming years.”

Ian and Clare still live in Keynsham and Jeff went to the now closed Bath Hill Primary School and Wellsway Secondary in the town.

Jeff lives in Wiltshire with his wife Joanne, 44, a freelance marketeer, and their son Freddie, aged 10.

Jeff was a toddler when the shop first opened and he worked in fashion after studying business at university in Luton before joining the family business.

When the shop first opened, there were six independent nursery shops in the Bristol region including famous local names such as Hurwoods in Old Market Street in the city centre and Hardings in Bedminster.

Now only Baby & Co remains of the independents and the only national retailer competing in the baby market is John Lewis in Bristol after the 2019 closure of Mothercare which had three branches in Bristol in busier times.

Most competition for Baby & Co comes from online giants which is why the company has been so keen to build its online operation.

The key to the explosion in online sales was bringing in Bristol-based back office software specialists Brightpearl, which transformed their online operation.

Before introducing the system, online orders were still being inputted manually, taking two full-time staff around 70 hours a week.

Jeff explained: “When things were quiet, we could just about keep up with the manual tasks. But when orders spiked, such as after Black Friday, we would have to spend days working late just to key in the sales data from one day. It was crazy, and totally unsustainable.”

The Brightpearl team had the whole system up and running in just over a month.

Jeff said: “Now, thanks to Brightpearl, most of our workflows are automated and everything is synced so that we can get a real-time overview of the business at any time. It means we’re able to take a very hands-off approach to everything from managing inventory to order fulfillment.

“Brightpearl is also committed to constantly adding new cutting-edge retail functions, which was important to us because we don’t want to continually have to invest in new systems. We want a system that can grow as we do, so it suits our business today and in five or 10 years’ time.”

Jeff said that Baby & Co had thrived while giants such as Mothercare had failed by following the company motto of being ‘adorable and affordable.’

He said: “Margins have always been fairly tight in the nursery sector and big stores such as Mothercare were spending a lot of money on bricks and mortar stores when the industry was moving online.

“The national chains were all based in big sheds out of town and people starting a new family wanted an experience that was more intimate and local.

“I still work in the shop every Saturday so I can interact with our customers and see what products they like and don’t like. If I was stuck in an office all the time, I wouldn’t get those kind of insights.

“We have always been looking to adapt and were one of the first independents to start trading online more than 20 years ago when I joined the company.

“I took the website that mum and dad first set up and made sure we were always ahead of the game online.”

 Despite facing supply chain issues and rising prices, Baby & Co is confident about continued growth and delivering on its reputation for providing a personalised shopping experience for parents-to-be in Keynsham,  Bristol, and beyond.

Jeff added: “We’re excited about the future. And although there’s lots of uncertainty in retail right now, we are confident we have the business in a good shape for the next 40 years.”