Time for change at Pumpkin Patch

BELLA KATZ
Last updated 05:00 08/04/2014
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OPINION: Five years ago I wrote a blog post about New Zealand children's retailer Pumpkin Patch. I thought the brand had lost its way and that its former glory as beloved New Zealand company founded by Sally Synott in 1990, was fading.

At the time I had a young daughter and was discouraged by what was on offer in their largest Melbourne store.

I conducted a very anecdotal piece of research, canvassing about 30 friends with kids via Facebook and Survey Monkey. It wasn't exactly in-depth marketing research, but the response was universal: Pumpkin Patch wasn't that great.

Parents thought the designs were dated, the quality was poor and prices were only good when the sales were on.

For several months, the blog post continued to generate discussion on a New Zealand business website, with numerous comments about the demise of their brand.

An Australian colleague, who had a connection to Sally Synott suggested we meet with Pumpkin Patch and see whether we could offer them our Australian insights. 

So several months later, I ended up sitting across the table from then-CEO Maurice Prendergast and the creative director.

Let's just say the meeting did not go well.

We parted ways and agreed to disagree about just how well Pumpkin Patch was doing.

Since then, my kids have got older and many other children's retailers have come in and out of our shopping lives. But I've always watched Pumpkin Patch's business affairs with interest - and what a sad show it has been.

Two years after that disastrous meeting, Prendergast resigned as CEO amidst a 50.5 per cent drop in net profit.

Then in 2011 they abandoned the US and in 2012 pulled out of the UK, closing 36 stores.

Last week saw perhaps the most jaw-dropping result as Pumpkin Patch posted a 98 per cent fall in earnings. From $4.7 million to $106,000 for the six months to January 31.

I don't envy the task ahead for new CEO Di Humphries. A lot of shareholders and equity partners will be breathing down her neck, demanding a speedy turnaround. No wonder she asked for "a bit of time to turn this baby around." 

Over the years, buyers have walked away from Pumpkin Patch, not only - as they keep saying - because of the tough retail market.

For a long time, Pumpkin Patch has felt like a brand still in the 90s. While parents' tastes changed, Pumpkin Patch designs did not.

I'm interested to see what the combination of the new CEO and new general manager of marketing will bring. The hybrid retail environment should be ideal for Pumpkin Patch and its mail-order beginnings.

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Kellie Nathan, who is Telecom's former general manager of brand, communications and digital was due to start in March. Nathan was part of the Telecom rebrand, so perhaps we'll see Pumpkin Patch returning to its brand roots.

Nathan may even be behind the large piece of customer research they say will be ready for release mid year. I'm all for research - I just hope they're doing some in Australia too, given it's their largest market.

I also hope the comment in a press release from 2014 that "Pumpkin Patch is seen as a premium brand internationally" is open for debate.

In Australia, Pumpkin Patch is very middle-of-the-road, yet its prices are more comparable to Country Road than Cotton On. As H&M opens its door with its own children's clothing, Pumpkin Patch really needs to focus on positioning itself as either true premium or low-cost, fast-fashion for kids.

It can't be both and right now, it's neither.

Bella Katz is an Australia-based brand and marketing consultant and advises New Zealand companies exporting to Australia. She is also a New Zealand expat, calling Australia home for over a decadeBella is in Auckland on 14 April presenting a Marketing to Australia workshop. Information and registration on the Export NZ website.

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