TORONTO (Reuters) - Feeling insecure about breastfeeding in public after the birth of her first child, Christine Poirier designed a solution and a small business at the same time.
“I made a nursing top for myself in order to feel good about breastfeeding in public settings,” said Poirier, 31, who co-founded Toronto-based apparel company Momzelle with her brother Vincent, 28, in 2007. “And then my midwife and my friends were telling me that I should bring the product to market.”
Poirier designed her tops to be practical, opting for a simple stylish t-shirt that flares at the waist and includes a small overlapping flap that provides discrete access to the breast for nursing.
“There’s no buttons, zippers or things that are weird. It doesn’t make breastfeeding obvious at all,” said Poirier, adding she chose neutral colors and mostly cotton fabrics to make them cool in the summer when mothers are nursing outside and machine washable. “When a mother is breastfeeding with the top, people usually can’t tell if she’s nursing or just holding a sleeping baby.”
The target audience for Momzelle is straight forward: new breastfeeding, active, urban mothers.
“They want to be able to go to restaurants, cafes, meet their friends outside in parks and just have a baby and have a life as well,” Poirier said.
Soon after launching, Poirier and her brother appeared on the Canadian television show Dragon’s Den, where they were offered C$60,000 for 30 percent of the company. After accepting the deal on air, they later decided to pass.
“We didn’t necessarily need the money,” said Poirier, who noted the appearance gave them great exposure. “It was more of a personal challenge to go on the show and see if we would be able to convince investors the business was viable.”
Poirier added financing is not a concern. The siblings used C$40,000 to start the business, a combination of personal savings, money from their parents and some funding from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, which also provided some mentoring.
“Now we’re debt free and we’ve reimbursed the loans that we had received at the beginning of the business,” said Poirier. “We don’t have any cash flow problems; we finance ourselves with our sales and are fine that way.”
Poirier said the company's revenues have been growing by 20 to 30 percent per quarter. In the beginning, she said they would sell a few shirts a day through their website (www.momzelle.com), which has since escalated to about 20 shirts a day.
“That’s the part of the business that we really focus on and try to grow as it’s easier to reach the ‘mom community’ online,” she said, noting about half the company’s revenues come from online sales.
Poirier said they’ve sold close to 10,000 shirts this year, which retail from C$45 to C$70, depending on the styles (t-shirts, tank tops, long-sleeved and dresses).
Poirier hoped her shirts will influence more mothers to breastfeed, adding it’s far less expensive than formula. “Formula costs $25 a week, whereas a nursing top will cost you $45 and last you for a year,” she said.
In the United States, 74 percent of women who gave birth in 2004 breast-fed their babies for at least some period of time, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Poirier estimated the North American breastfeeding apparel market is between C$25 million to C$40 million and said her biggest challenge is to increase Momzelle’s exposure and sales in the more lucrative U.S. market.
“It’s about 15 to 20 percent of our overall sales that are from the United States,” said Poirier, who added of the 80 maternity and baby stores that sell her tops across North America, just 10 are in the U.S. “The market is 10 times bigger than the Canadian market.”
Poirier is trying to boost exposure south of the border by partnering with U.S.-based websites and hooking into the very active community of mommy bloggers.
Poirier insisted Momzelle’s micro focus on first-time breastfeeding mothers is what will set them apart in a highly competitive marketplace.