The biggest news in Massachusetts maternity and new-parent circles this week was the abrupt closing of the Isis Parenting chain. Here, Kord Brashear, a consultant on innovation in retail, shares his perspective on what went wrong.
By Kord Brashear
When Isis, the Boston-based upscale outlet for maternity classes and products, abruptly closed this week, its chief executive Heather Coughlin told the media that it was because of the “tough environment for independent retailers. It’s no mystery. There are a lot of competitive forces – there’s diapers.com and Amazon.com.”
But at its core, Isis, with retail locations in Greater Boston, Atlanta and Dallas, was supposed to be a place for new and expectant moms to learn about childbirth and breastfeeding, and find postpartum support. The storefronts had the benefit of a steady hospital referral pipeline for childbirth and lactation classes, which were often full. But when the retail aspect (breast pumps, clothing, books) failed due to online encroachment, it brought down the whole business, abruptly leaving many moms in the lurch and revealing the fact that the classes themselves were not profitable.
It seems as though few companies have figured out the right business model for maternity support services in the digital age. On the West Coast, the man behind the wildly popular My Breast Friend pillow opened a chain called Day One Center to provide birth and breastfeeding classes, but that recently closed, too.
What can we learn from this?
Customers always vote with their dollars. Too few families can or will pay a profitable rate for pre- and post-partum support. Obviously, it’s not because they don’t care about their children – so what gives?
Often, they view these services as an extension of childbirth, which is typically covered by insurance. Basically, Isis tried to charge for something that parents aren’t sure they should be paying for. When people discuss the topic of health care, the conversation often boils down to the question of who should pay for it. And I presume that there’s a portion of parents who believe that hospitals should cover childbirth classes, or health insurance should cover it – but they shouldn’t have to pay for it themselves, directly.
Providers must consider all of the needs of their customers, not just one. Isis did one thing really, really well. And that was to make the participants in each of its classes feel like they were getting personalized, expert parenting advice. And that’s something that’s really difficult for online classes or YouTube videos to replicate. But what about the moms who work full time or have other responsibilities or priorities and could not commit to classes spread out over weeks?
Was there any way that Isis could have made its offering more accessible to a broader audience?
Why even bother trying to make a bricks and mortar concept out of it?
If your value to customers is all about delivering personalized, expert parent education and support, why even bother trying to make a bricks and mortar concept out of it? There are other formats for educators to capture and sell their knowledge. Cooks Illustrated is an excellent example of this. If you think about that company’s various touch points – such as magazines, books, TV shows and now radio — they’ve created a cumulative effect to build a larger audience for generating revenue.
Perhaps Isis could have created a magazine and distributed it through every Whole Foods and Target across America. Isis just didn’t have enough well-developed channels to distribute its content and build an audience. Instead of being a retail company, they should have tried to become more of a media company.
Kord Brashear is a principal at Continuum, a global design and innovation consultancy where he works with retailers on strategy, service design and customer experience.