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A Babies "R" Us superstore in Brooklyn, N.Y.


The baby business is growing up.

A full-scale retail war is erupting as a rising number of retailers race to grab a piece of the critical baby market. Online juggernaut raised the stakes this week by launching an e-commerce baby store, potentially stealing away baby sales from incumbents. And U.S. cheap-chic chain Target Corp., which arrives in Canada next year, treats baby sales as a strategic priority.

Major merchants, including Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. and Loblaw Cos. Ltd., now may risk losing customers unless they move quickly to set up their own online baby shop.

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The battle for baby – and more specifically, moms and moms-to-be – is crucial because mothers are a target customer for many retailers and gaining her loyalty can mean a lifetime shopper as baby gets older.

It is also important because moms of babies are the best customers, visiting stores 40 times a year, according to a 2010 Shoppers Drug Mart presentation that called baby "the forgotten child." Mothers want what's best for their baby but also aren't the easiest consumers, being value-conscious and time-starved and seeking "to be happy for one short moment," it found.

Since then, Shoppers has bulked up on baby goods, rolling out higher-margin private label lines of diapers and other baby paraphernalia and a "VIB" (very important baby) rewards card for mom. Wal-Mart Canada Corp. has been pumping up its own baby e-commerce site this year and, last week, began selling diapers online with free shipping. At the same time, the discounter follows a select group of mommy bloggers to find out their "intimate" needs and wants.

In the past couple of years, Babies R Us, Children's Place and Old Navy have all focused on selling baby items online, and now has a full array of baby merchandise with free delivery on $25-plus orders.

"The battle to win mom's dollar is going to become increasingly competitive," Jennifer Stahlke, director of customer strategy at Wal-Mart Canada, said earlier this month.

The baby market in Canada is estimated to be a billion-dollar-plus business – footwear and apparel alone make up more than $1.1-billion in sales, according to market researcher NPD Group. Tellingly, overall baby apparel sales are relatively flat or slipping year over year because of a declining birth rate, but online infant and toddler sales jumped by almost 60 per cent last year, its data show.

Retailers are focusing on attracting twenty- and thirty-something mothers through popular mommy blogs and social media. These online communicators are already tech-savvy and receptive to Internet approaches, said Kathy Perrotta, fashion director at NPD in Canada. But they also are early adopters of online shopping, which can be more convenient for the busy multitaskers in purchasing their baby needs, she said.

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Now with selling baby products online, the pressure is on others to follow suit. "They're going to have to change," Ms. Perrotta said.

Domestic players are making progress, particularly in tracking mommy bloggers. Sears Canada Inc. recently partnered with to help spread the word of its renewed focus on baby. Wal-Mart uses a tool it calls "listen-ins" or "girl talk," which essentially consist of four moms who already know each other talking together online, Ms. Stahlke told a recent conference. "They're chatting together just like regular girlfriends would. It's so much more transparent, and honest and real."

For example, Wal-Mart realized from the listen-ins that after Christmas, customers were particularly stressed with credit card bills piling up and near-empty pantries. As a result in January, rather than running its customary health promotions, the retailer rolled back prices on more than 9.000 items.

As well, mommy bloggers have "shared with us personal details about themselves, about their families, how they're tackling the season ahead and about their myriad of shopping adventures," Ms. Stahlke said. "We can truly know what they are thinking, feeling and doing each and every week of the year. We give them activities to tease out those insights and to help us get to know them deeply, everything from hand drawing out a project plan for the season to grabbing a video camera and going into the store and showing us something that really resonated with them at their favourite retailer."

Wal-Mart's prototypical mom blogger ("Belinda") is a 32-year-old, married stay-at-home mom in Vancouver with two children. She views herself as the ultimate project manager who sets her budget and ensures she delivers on time. "This is so much more powerful than traditional focus groups or even ethnographies. This gets us inside moms' head where the richest insights will come from."

Retailers have taken varying steps in launching online shopping for baby goods. Wal-Mart, which rolled out its e-commerce last year, has gradually added more baby items. In June, Sears will launch a Baby's Room section in stores and on its e-tailing site, where it is pumping up its baby gift registry. Loblaw, which picks up insights from its mom bloggers who moderate its "Baby and You" Facebook page, plans to start selling online its Joe Fresh baby and other fashions in 2013.

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Shoppers has paid increasing attention to baby and moms but doesn't have e-commerce. Its pharmacists are a trusted source of advice on such issues as diaper rash, coughs, colds and teething, spokeswoman Tammy Smitham said. "We are seen as a convenient, trusted retailer for moms to get what they need, when they need it most."

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