The Behavioural Science behind the decline of Mothercare.

Posted by Alice Carver on the 13th November, 2019
We have a strong tendency to follow the lead and advice of a legitimate authority. Mothercare has been a strong authority retailer historically, but perhaps this positioning has been diluted over the years.

In Thailand they have a phrase that the street sellers heckle you with: ‘same same but different’. They try and sell you a product and convince you that even if it is  the same as that offered by the stall next door, it is somehow different.

Is this where Mothercare went wrong?

Did parents believe that Mothercare were really offering something different? How might Mothercare have enhanced the offline shopping experience to motivate parents to shop in their bricks and mortar stores if the online baby market offered the same products at a better price?

It’s easy to view Mothercare as the latest casualty in what some call ‘the death of the high street’, yet a recent survey by Which?  has found that smaller retailers are prospering in the wake of the departure of several renowned retailers from our high streets.

Could Mothercare’s struggles make way for the success of smaller retailers? According to the data collected by Which? which analysed the 2014-2019 landscape of Britain’s retail and services, those which have seen significant growth – cafes, hair and beauty services, function rooms, and tattoo parlours, to name a few – are those that are hard to ‘replicate’ online. Our recent work with Mood Media also demonstrates that the retail experience needs to up its game in-store, and many retailers big and small are improving sensorial aspects of their store to capitalise on the appetite for experiential shopping. How might Mothercare have created an ‘offline only’ shopping experience to boost custom?

Read on to explore the Behavioural Science behind the decline of Mothercare.


  1. Social proof

According to this behavioural bias, we tend to follow the pattern of others in new or unfamiliar situations. So, for those who are new to parenting, they are likely to look to others in terms of advice – whether this is asking friends and family, their NCT groups, Mumsnet and other online reviews as well as advice forums. If others they knew were shopping at Mothercare for products for their children (under 8), then they may have been more likely to shop there too. Using language such as ‘trusted by mums’ or ‘join other mums in choosing the best for your baby’ in their communications can be a great way to achieve this. Getting products tested by the Made for Mums awards or Mother & Baby rewards (or similar) to achieve recognition and the seal of approval from mums.


  1. Authority

We have a strong tendency to follow the lead and advice of a legitimate authority. Mothercare has been a strong authority retailer historically, but perhaps this positioning has been diluted over the years. Perhaps the closure of more than 40% of the Mothercare stores  reduced brand awareness and brand confidence amongst consumers? Brand consideration perhaps could have been boosted through authoritative expert recommendations such as if Which? recommended a Mothercare product as a Which? best buy product, or had Money Saving Expert recommended Mothercare as part of their ‘tips and tricks on how to save money with a baby or toddler’.


  1. Limited choice

We are more likely to make a choice when there are fewer options to choose from. Were Mothercare’s product ranges too wide? Did they stock too many products which overwhelmed consumers with choice and led to choice paralysis and purchase inertia? Could Mothercare have taken advantage of the prevalence of baby showers and gender reveal parties and created product demand by creating Mothercare gift lists to encourage purchase (by those attending the party) and minimise the pressure of choice, for example?  Could Mothercare have adopted the approach that wine brands take by suggesting products considered to be the ‘buyer’s choice’? (this is also an example of authority).


  1. Framing

How choices are presented affects the decisions we make. We make decisions by making comparisons and don’t view choices in isolation. Consider the office classic: tea or coffee? A simple beverage options we are all accustomed to making. Did the fact that Mothercare had stores that were miles away make it harder for consumers to have a frame of reference to compare their choices? Did consumers feel swayed to shop online so they could do additional research and compare their purchase choices? I know I am personally guilty of looking at the price of a book on Amazon whilst looking at the physical book in Waterstone’s, for example. If you only have access to the prams that Mothercare is offering and no basis of comparison, how do you know if you are buying the best pram at the best price?

  1. Feedback loops

We are motivated when we see how our actions modify subsequent results. As the average age of a UK mum is 30.3 years old, and the average age of a UK first time mum is 28, mums have a lower average age than most other consumer groups. As a result they are likely to have a lower SEG and a lower disposable income (which is further squeezed when they have children) than other consumer groups. Therefore, it is understandable that sharing resources with peers (e.g. borrowing from friends/family, buying cheaper items off Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree) may be more desirable to those penny pinching. Furthermore, perhaps those mums with more than one child went down the hand-me-down approach and didn’t offer repeat custom to Mothercare despite having had more children as they could reuse what they already owned/had access to. However, tracking research we have previously conducted has told us that during the recession people ‘went without’ in many product categories, but the purchase of baby related products were largely recession-proof. Therefore, it seems there is money to be spent (and made!) in this market. How could Mothercare have used feedback loops to reward repeat custom and loyalty? Perhaps they could have offered an in-store discount for a garment recycling system  (in a similar style to H&M) to turn the hand-me-down behaviour of mums into a new purchase opportunity? Perhaps they could have taken inspiration from IKEA’s upcoming furniture rental system  and considered renting baby furniture to encourage repeat custom to those having more than one child?

Societal Context

In addition to viewing the closure of Mothercare’s 79 UK stores through a behavioural science lens, we should also consider the societal context in which they were operating their business. In an age of men and women demanding equal parental rights (as seen in the recent offer of 20 weeks paid parental leave to Goldman Sachs employees, regardless of if they are men or women ) perhaps the Mothercare name did not reflect the breadth of those who parent. What about men? What about those grandparents who often provide childcare support to families? What about male same sex couples? Parenting and purchases for children are not done by mothers alone. It is not just the mothers who care, and it is not just that mothers that Mothercare should have cared about. And it is perhaps this that was their greatest oversight. If the defining point of the Mothercare brand was that they were caring about mothers, this wouldn’t have resonated in today’s society and may have differentiated Mothercare for the wrong reasons. How could Mothercare have authentically been ‘same same but different’ in a way that resonated with the modern definition of parenting?  It is essential that brands evolve and reflect the cultural zeitgeist in order to survive, and perhaps behavioural science could have helped to facilitate that.

If you’d like to learn more about behavioural science and how you can view current affairs through a behavioural science lens get in touch with our behavioural science expert Andreea by email:

Meet the Author: Alice Carver
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