Are Wegmans, Giant Eagle and Tops wise to drop in-store childcare?

Photo: @Jennyrsmith via Twenty20
Jun 05, 2019
Tom Ryan

Wegmans is closing its last WKids play center in Buffalo in another example of retailers that are discontinuing in-store child care services and kids’ play areas.

WKids offers free supervision of children ages three to nine for up to two hours while their parents shop or use the store’s cafe.

“Certainly we’re finding space in our current store footprint to bring more services that are now in greater demand,” Michele Mehaffy, the chain’s consumer affairs manager in Buffalo, told The Buffalo News. “Of course, these happen to be services that many families use. To be honest, the number of families using the WKids service has steadily declined over the past several years.”

Some of the closed WKids spaces are being used for grocery pickup and delivery or expanded cafe seating. After the play area closes in June, six WKids will be left, down from 27 at their peak in the early 2000s. Newer stores have not featured play centers.

The Wegmans location will encourage families to shop together, offering kid-friendly shopping carts. The retailer is also promoting Family Experience programs, including kid-friendly movie nights, kids’ cooking classes and yoga sessions, special events for Mother’s Day and other holidays, story times and painting nights.

The closing of the play centers is bound to disappoint some. As recently as 2016, an article in The Buffalo News praised the WKids service for helping overcome the frustrations of shopping with kids.

Among other retailers, Giant Eagle has closed many of its Eagle’s Nest children’s activity centers in part due to increasing use of curbside pickup. Tops, serving Western New York, closed its last in-store play center earlier this year to make room for a coffee bar. Many Kroger banners still offer an hour of free childcare for two- to six-year-olds. IKEA has Småland areas.

Playgrounds at fast food chains such as McDonald’s that used to support birthday parties are getting harder to find. A 2017 Eater article attributed the decline to fast food chains shifting marketing away from kids, a need for more seating and finding that children are entertaining themselves with games on mobile devices.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think is behind retailer decisions to close in-store childcare spaces? Are modern parents hesitant to use these facilities?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Customers are looking for more convenient options and clearly are choosing in-store pick up over in-store childcare. "
"There has been a lot of press in recent years about what’s really in those ball pits your kids are playing in…."
"Wegmans is offering many other creative ways besides in-store child care to help families to enjoy shopping."

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16 Comments on "Are Wegmans, Giant Eagle and Tops wise to drop in-store childcare?"

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Art Suriano

There is no doubt that finances are a big part of the decision to close these facilities. However, there is also today’s concern with lawsuits with lawyers quick to sue a company over the slightest issue and, when parents are not present, the company is taking a considerable risk of exposure should an incident take place. Moreover, it does make sense to provide more opportunities for the children to occupy themselves under the parent’s care, such as fun shopping carts with games, toys, and technology to keep the child busy.

I would think that parents would prefer keeping their children with them as long as they can continue to shop. There will always be the few who prefer to drop the child off and let someone watch their child but, as the article said, those numbers today are not making sense. Closing in-store childcare spaces is nothing more than keeping up with the times and focusing on where the money gets spent wisely.

Phil Masiello

This is purely an economic decision. If these spaces are not being used by the customers, then certainly the space can be converted back to selling and generate revenue. Also this is probably affecting the insurance liability coverage for the store.

As a parent, I would be hesitant to leave my child in one of these spaces and I am sure others are as well. When you throw in the threats of shootings occurring at a more rapid rate, this could be a source of anxiety for modern parents.

Brandon Rael

As a father of an 8 and 6 year old, it’s a welcoming development when a retailer, grocer, or restaurant has kid-related services and a kid friendly environment. While not having a willingness to make your operation more kid-friendly isn’t a deal breaker, there are plenty of parents who will avoid certain stores and restaurants due to their kids’ boredom.

The European model of having family-friendly environments simply resonates. Children are far more influential on their parents’ shopping decisions than I expected. It should be a priority to cater to the important “parents with young kids” shopping segment. Both the parents and kids will enjoy the shopping/dining experiences, and there will be a quantifiable increase in business and overall customer satisfaction.

Mark Ryski

The concept seems easy and obvious, but executing it consistently well is a challenge. The decline in parents using childcare spaces may also be a function of the quality of service retailers are providing – few parents will want to leave their child in a dirty or run-down childcare area. Well run, appointed and staffed childcare spaces like IKEA’s do get used by shoppers. Any retailer that commits to providing a childcare space also needs to commit to providing a quality experience.

Dick Seesel

There is nothing wrong with a store design that engages kids as well as parents if it’s intended for a family shopping experience. (Grocery stores certainly qualify.) But there is no economic benefit to the retailer to devote space to any category or service if it’s not being used productively. Better to use the square footage to generate profitable sales, as long as the shopping experience is engaging instead of boring.

Lauren Goldberg

Closing these centers makes sense, both from a financial standpoint and a customer experience point of view. Customers are looking for more convenient options and clearly are choosing in-store pick up over in-store childcare.

As a mother of two small children (ages 5 and 1), I would be VERY hesitant to leave my children in a playplace where I was not familiar with the staff. We are constantly bombarded (thank you social media) with horror stories of shootings, injuries and child abuse. However, I LOVE retailers that have made efforts to be kid-friendly, from child size grocery carts to free snacks and games. I enjoy taking my 5 year old to the grocery store as a learning experience and definitely spend more money when he is tagging along.

Evan Snively

Agreed Lauren – I have two boys (3 and 1) and apart from not wanting to traumatize the store staff with their rambunctious behavior, I simply don’t feel comfortable utilizing services in places with which I am unfamiliar. An every day gym where you know the staff is one thing, but a once a year drop off at IKEA is totally different.

(And surprisingly, I actually really enjoy shopping with my boys and having them interact in-store with me.)

Georganne Bender

We wrote about in-store play areas not too long ago on our Retail Adventures blog. It’s a costly endeavor and one that requires patience, diligence and lots of insurance. In many cases it’s just not worth the risk. And there has been a lot of press in recent years about what’s really in those ball pits your kids are playing in…

These days I wouldn’t leave my child in a play area, and neither would my daughter. We don’t have to because stores like Wegmans go out of the way to make shopping with kids easy. Kids love a racecar cart; Wegmans also offers Caroline’s Carts that are created for special needs children. When you add up all of the services like online ordering, BOPIS and delivery, plus the things offered in its Family Experience program, it more than makes up for the loss of child care areas.

Ryan Mathews

I was never sold on the idea of childcare. Sure it makes great theoretical sense, but it also means your store or chain is one accident, one mini-epidemic, or one really bad hire away from a disaster. I never thought the risk/reward math worked out. Now add a new generation of younger shoppers who either opt not to have kids, or are afraid to let their kids go anywhere without supervision, and/or are willing to sue at the drop of a hat, and you’ve just kicked the last leg out from under an already shaky stool.

Doug Garnett

The idea of childcare can be quite attractive to management, but is it similarly attractive (in reality) with parents? Do parents trust those who are running the facility? Do they trust the other kids in the space? Do their children want it or would they prefer to wander the store?

Reality seems to fight against these — so it’s no wonder use is dropping nor is it any wonder that it’s far more profitable for the retailer to convert the space to other uses.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Wegmans is offering many other creative ways besides in-store child care to help families to enjoy shopping. They are a smart operator who I expect made the decision with insights on profits, store space and customer usage.

John Karolefski

I suppose it makes economic sense to discontinue the service if not enough shoppers are taking advantage of it. But it’s ironic that these grocers are eliminating child-care services at a time when QFC supermarkets and Stop & Shop are installing special doghouses outside their stores so customers can park their pets safely while shopping inside. I wonder if that will make economic sense.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Vice President, Retail Marketing, enVista
7 months 11 days ago

With declining use of the in-store childcare spaces, it makes sense for grocers to close these areas and use the space for something that is more valuable to customers and profitable for the stores. Childcare spaces seem like a logical service to make shopping easier for parents, but I suspect that some parents may not feel comfortable leaving their children with a “stranger.”

Craig Sundstrom

“B…but think of the children!”

Without having sat in on the meetings where the decision were made, it’s difficult to know exactly what the reasons were: liability issues, supervision issues, or maybe exactly what the press release said (i.e. they just weren’t being used enough). As noted, this will disappoint some, but I don’t think it was ever much more than an experiment … and a limited one at that.

Kenneth Leung

Makes sense for these retailers given shoppers today are shopping faster in the grocery store and looking for convenience because of pre-planning. Plus the increased labor cost and liability to provide the service given the margins for a supermarket, it doesn’t make economic sense. IKEA is a larger store and dwell time with a higher margin that can sustain the service.

Heidi Sax

If it’s true that participation in these childcare spaces was on the decline, then it absolutely makes sense to close them. If the cost and risk associated with in-store childcare don’t outweigh the associated sales lift, then of course grocers are wise to discontinue offering it. Furthermore, Wegmans isn’t giving up on taking frustration out the equation for parents grocery shopping with kids — they’re testing features that may be more appealing to shoppers such as kid-friendly shopping carts, cooking classes, etc. Retailers need to be able to fail fast and adapt, and it sounds like Wegmans is doing that.

"Customers are looking for more convenient options and clearly are choosing in-store pick up over in-store childcare. "
"There has been a lot of press in recent years about what’s really in those ball pits your kids are playing in…."
"Wegmans is offering many other creative ways besides in-store child care to help families to enjoy shopping."

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