Did you know that Milkface Nursingwear is Canada’s oldest breastfeeding and babywearing store?
In 2001, Britt Pegan was a new mother and frustrated that the clothing options for nursing mothers were not only limited, but available only online, where she could not try things on to see what worked best for her. It was the same with baby carriers, cloth diapers, and other “natural parenting” or “attachment parenting” products. There was no Amazon.com, no e-commerce platforms, and few local resources for purchasing baby carriers and cloth diapers. The few retailers who brought on
carriers such as New Native and Maya Wrap were mostly natural food and herbal stores or birth and wellness centers.
Britt’s response was to become, inadvertently, an industry pioneer. In the US and Canada, the idea of a retail store focused on babywearing and/or natural parenting was a new idea. Online shopping was just becoming a “thing.” Parents had few resources for seeing, trying, and comparing the products on the market.
Envisioning a community space she’d love to use
Britt envisioned a beautiful, community-oriented space for parents to find breastfeeding products and resources, baby carriers, and much more. During her maternity leave (Canada offers new mothers 12 months of maternity leave), she nurtured not only her new daughter but second baby – Milkface Nursingwear. It began as an online-only platform in the days when websites were painstakingly hand-coded. In those days, if (like Britt) you didn’t have coding experience, you had to ask your web designer for help with everything, from adding new products to changing an image on your homepage, but unphased, she pursued her vision.
After launching her webstore (and dabbling in manufacturing herself, for a time) she created a by-appointment showroom in her home before finally opening the doors to her brick and mortar store in Ottawa – which may be the oldest independent retail focused on breastfeeding and babywearing in Canada (and, possibly, in North America). It was a huge and daunting step, but Britt has never looked back. “As soon as I moved it out of the house, even though the idea freaked me out, it was amazing,” she says.
Milkface drew local parents for babywearing meetups, lactation support, and more. Parents eagerly told their friends about the impeccable customer service, carefully curated and high-quality products, and the parenting community they’d find at the location. For 16 years, Milkface Nursingwear has thrived, focused on its core values of education and empowering parents to be close to their children. They accomplish this by focusing their products and services on those that will keep families strong and connected.
The challenges of being an independent specialty boutique
Like all independent retailers, one of the greatest challenges Milkface has faced is showrooming. Showrooming is when a customer comes to a brick and mortar store to view products, benefitting from the quality customer service and experience of a store’s employees, but ultimately buys the product elsewhere – usually online.
For reasons independent retailers don’t fully understand, showrooming is especially common with cloth diapers and baby carriers. “I’m not sure what it is,” Britt says. “People don’t showroom nursing bras and clothing like they do slings and diapers.”
The trouble is, independent retailers spend significant amounts of money training and staffing their stores, attending trainings, and carefully curating products. They are not able to buy in bulk like big box stores and large online retailers, so they can’t leverage the significant discounts these stores do.
Moreover, department stores and large online retailers don’t pay staff to provide customized service. There is nobody in the aisle of most department stores helping to fit carriers, offering demonstrations, or advising struggling parents. These stores usually don’t offer classes and community programming. When someone comes to their store for their service but purchases something like a carrier somewhere else in order to save a few dollars, the store struggles to make payroll, rent, and other expenses.
Another struggle Milkface is encountering is a changing market defined by surprise promotions, lightning deals, and increasingly short supply chains. “
“You have to keep moving,” Britt explains. “It used to be enough to have great products and great service, but now you have to kind of keep moving; keep reinventing yourself.” In order to stand out in a market where customers are inundated with messages, promotions, and gimmicks on social media, it takes a great deal of work to stand out. Customers begin taking their local stores for granted if the store isn’t able to maintain that “newness,” it seems.
What you build when you shop locally
Britt and I reflect together about the changing face of “Main Street” in Canada and the US. I asked her to talk about why local stores and the “shop local” movement are important.
“First of all, it benefits them,” she said. “People who live in your town. If you’re shopping local, you have a place to go to get your questions answered. If you have warranty issues, there’s someone to help you. There people who will help you make a purchasing decision. It really benefits people to shop local.”
She continues. “It also benefits the community has a whole, along with the people who live there. It benefits them to have a more vibrant, interesting community. Most people don’t want to walk down the street lined with GAP, American Eagle, etc. Not interesting. And local businesses are engaged with the local economy in a way these large manufacturers are not.”
And while local retailers are usually unable to keep the long hours of larger retailers – especially small retailers committed to paying a living wage – Britt has worked hard to make it easy for people to shop at her store. “At Milkface, we work hard to accommodate the local community with our hours. We’re open six days a week and we really try to keep our hours convenient for families.”
Britt and her staff not only consider the local families they serve, but they also focus on carrying high-quality brands owned by small, family-operated companies like theirs. In this way, they are building not only the community of Ottawa, but supporting local communities end ethical businesses both in Canada and around the world.
Staying relevant in a changing market
I was particularly curious about some of the local initiatives Milkface has worked on. Over the years, Milkface has hosted a number of special events in their store, and customers love the sense of community and celebration that comes with these events.
Currently, Britt is preparing for the “puzzle promotion,” a fantastically fun game of chance. Customers will receive a puzzle piece with instructions – a different piece for each customer. Then, the store will assemble a replica of the puzzle in-store, leaving one piece missing. Customers can bring their puzzle pieces in to see whose piece fits the empty space, and the winner will win a shopping spree at Milkface.
I asked Britt to tell me about some of her favorite events. She thought a moment. “One of my favorite events,” she said slowly, “was probably the Black and White party we hosted. The theme was inspired by a photographer who came to the event who took beautiful black and white photos, and the whole event sort of grew around that. It is was simple and yet that simplicity really made it work.
“So, we hired this amazing photographer to come, as well as a makeup artist who would do makeup for anyone wanted it, and we offered free photo sessions to attendees. We encouraged everyone to wear black and white to the party; we served black and white foods – cupcakes, chocolate, coffee, things like that. Our decorations were all black and white. Families who wanted to purchase copies of the photographs could do that after they’d been edited. We had lots of door prizes – all, of course, in black and white.”
I could picture it, and I wished I’d been there. I asked Britt, aside from the theme, what she thought contributed to the party atmosphere.
“It was the people who came,” she told me. “Our customers are amazing. We held the party in February – so after the holidays, but when people were really feeling weighed down by winter blahs and excited to get out and do something fun. The families that came brought this incredible, fun energy and it was such a joy to have everyone at the store.”
Britt’s admiration for and focus on her customers shone through our conversation. The community that Milkface inspires and gathers, in addition to its staff, is what makes Milkface such a special store. “There are some things you really just can’t get or do online,” she explains. “Lactation services, for example – you can try to get that online, but nothing can replace the in-person connection and support, really. And I want our community to have that resource. New parents need a place to go when they have questions or need help, and I love that Milkface meets that need.”
See a need, fill it: Founding the BCIA
Britt Pegan has never shied away when she sees a need in her community – whether it’s a local store and resource or an international crisis in her business community.
In 2010, Britt was a founding member of the Baby Carrier Industry Alliance, a non-profit trade organization that worked with small businesses, consumer advocacy groups, senators and congresspeople, the CPSC, and other organizations during an event that threw the whole babywearing industry into flux and chaos.
The CPSC had threatened to outlaw and recall the entire category of infant wraps and slings, businesses were closing under the weight of new regulations, and influencers had no understanding of the ways slings and wraps allowed babies’ basic neurobiological needs to be met.
I looked back at some of Britt’s accomplishments within our community and I felt awed by her commitment and her leadership, and I asked her to reflect on it. It took her a few minutes to answer.
“I don’t know that I think about it at all in that way. I mean, we were in the trenches and we had to do it. It wasn’t about thinking, ‘I want to be a leader.’ More like, ‘Holy cow, if we don’t do this, nobody else is, so we need to.’”
Britt brought her strong organizational skills, intelligence, and passion to the newly founded BCIA, putting forth her time and her money to support the organization she now chairs.
She also traveled from Canada to the US for ASTM meetings, advocating for micro-manufacturers during the standards-writing process for F-2907, the sling standard. These standards are written with large manufacturers in mind, and the costs of testing can be overwhelming. She used her strong voice to help ensure that wherever possible, the costs were kept down and redundant tests were not included in the standard, so that the brands she carries can be compliant with regulations without too much financial burden.
Most notably, Britt worked with Health Canada on behalf of the BCIA to spearhead the “Visible and Kissable” awareness campaign. This was a tremendous accomplishment that may never have happened without Britt’s tireless networking and advocacy.
Tips for other stores?
Sixteen years is a long time to run a successful, vibrant business. At a time when so many retailers are struggling and fewer and fewer people are shopping at their local stores, I wanted to hear Britt’s advice to other retailers in similar markets.
“You can’t take anything for granted. Be constantly moving. You can’t rely simply on goodwill or word of mouth.” I asked her what she meant, and she said that increasingly people seem to view stores less as a community resource and more as a disposable commodity. We talked for a few minutes about the way local customers come out of the woodwork each time another business closes, expressing their sadness at losing a local resource. People are always willing to support local retailers when they finally have to give up and close their doors, but if local retailers are to continue to thrive in communities around the globe, people need to commit to shopping at their stores.
“You have to enjoy more than the experience of driving past and smiling fondly,” I suggested.
“I think that people want to like you,” Britt said. “And even though the market has changed, they still want things to do; they still want to go out and be with sympathetic friends instead of sitting at home with a crying baby. That really hasn’t changed.
“One of the things that has helped us I think is the fact that we also offer services like lactation services you really can’t source online. Stores need to find their in-person ‘thing.’ There are some things that are still in-person things. I know in some stores, they have very successful babywearing classes. Our babywearing classes aren’t a huge draw, but people do appreciate the in-person help and education they get when they buy a carrier here.
“I’d like to stop worrying so much about work when I’m at home, but I’ve scheduled myself less than I used to for actual hours in the store; scheduled more time with kids. Maybe people who take a paycheck are able to go home and not think about work all night? I don’t know if you ever truly can find balance, but it’s important to try.”
“What has sustained you in this industry for 16 years, most of all?” I asked her. She talks about her customers, about her local community, then she paused.
“I stayed in the industry part of things because of the people,” she said. And of course I can relate to that. Me, too. Because of people like Britt Pegan, the beautiful mastermind behind Milkface Nursingwear.
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