British Retailers Give Parents Royal Treatment

Score one for members of the stroller set - and their parents.

On the third floor of Peter Jones department store on Sloane Square, a large green sign near the baby department points to a highly popular spot - the Parents Room, a well-equipped haven for mothers and fathers who need to take time out from shopping to change a diaper or feed a baby or toddler.

One mother, cradling her nine-week-old daughter as she relaxes in the room, says, "This certainly is beneficial for us. I don't know what I'd do without it." Other parents filing in and out on a Saturday afternoon echo her comments. So does Sara Springett, merchandise manager, who says customer response to the Parents Room has been "very good."

Innovations like these, common in British department stores, remain a luxury for most parents in the United States. Although American companies trumpet family-friendly policies for workers, retailers have been slow to initiate such services for customers. As a beginning, some American department stores now feature small diaper-changing areas in women's and men's restrooms, and some women's restrooms include an anteroom where mothers can feed infants, although without privacy.

Yet so highly regarded are spaces like these in England that Tommy's Campaign, a national charity, sponsors an annual search for Britain's most parent-friendly stores, restaurants, and supermarkets. For the past two years the John Lewis Partnership, owner of 23 department stores in Britain including Peter Jones, has won first prize among department stores.

Parents fill out forms at retail outlets, noting which organizations help or hinder them when they shop or dine with small children. This year nearly 50,000 parents voted - a record high. Awards for the fifth competition will be announced March 20.

At Peter Jones, automatic doors provide easy access to the Parents Room. Inside, to the left, a padded L-shaped counter offers a place to change diapers, or "nappies." A vending machine above the sink sells disposable diapers. To the right, a cozy curtained area with four blue chairs and a small table gives privacy for breast-feeding. Nearby, a bottle warmer stands ready to heat milk and baby food. Another room includes a child-size toilet and low sink. Whimsical animals parade across a wallpaper border in the russet-and-cream decor. Everything is airy and spotlessly clean.

Supermarkets have led the initiative for parent-friendly services in England, according to Caroline Winterbottom, a spokeswoman for Tommy's Campaign. "They vie with each other more than any other group to get these facilities," she says. "The mother-and-child customer base is an extremely important one."

Grocery-store innovations include wide aisles, special shopping carts to hold infants and toddlers, diaper-changing facilities, and bottle warmers. Some supermarkets, Ms. Winterbottom adds, are even beginning to offer child-care facilities, or crches, where infants and young children are supervised while parents shop.

In restaurants, services include special menus for children, games and activities to keep them occupied, and play areas. "Children used to be frowned upon in restaurants," Winterbottom says. "Now there are lots of chains that positively encourage parents to come in with their children."

Noting "definite improvement" in attitudes toward parents and children, she adds, "We would like to think the parent-friendly awards have made a significant contribution to better conditions for families in shops and restaurants in the UK today."

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