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The $900 Baby Stroller Is Not Dead

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ABC News: When Fairchild Publications announced way back in 2005 that it was going to launch a magazine for the high-end parenting market called Cookie, it felt like ideal zeitgeist timing. You couldn't walk down the streets of any major American city without getting run over by a perfectly coifed and dressed yummy mummy pushing an infant in a $900 Bugaboo stroller, complete with a $200-plus diaper bag slung over her shoulder.

And Cookie celebrated it all. From architecturally designed changing tables for infants to cashmere sweaters for toddlers, the magazine promoted a never-ending stream of high-end, luxurious products for the under-5 set.

The came the recession. Putting a child in hand-me-downs went from a social faux pas to a hip parenting statement in elite urban parenting precincts. Luxury baby sales are declining across the board, with name brands such as Bugaboo rumored to be suffering double-digit sales declines. And now Cookie itself is no more, shut down unceremoniously by current owner Conde Nast this week, a victim of both the severe advertising contraction in the print-media universe as well as changing mores in the parenting world.

Yet while it would be nice to think Cookie's demise also signals the financial divorce of conspicuous consumption and over-the-top parenting, that just isn't so. As it turns out, the kiddy luxury market has morphed, proteanlike, adapting to new conditions.

"Cookie is a bellwether, and it's not surprising that it would close this year,"says Alan Fields, co-author of Baby Bargains. "But it's not like everything collapsed at the higher end of the market. The luxury market is not universally dead."

Observers generally agree that the high-end baby-and-children's market has probably contracted between 10 percent and 20 percent since the end of 2007, as the housing crash, stock market losses, the nation's high unemployment rate, and the continuing recession combine to put the kibosh on much kid-related discretionary spending.

But some areas of the children's high-end market continue to thrive. What's hot: virtuous spending on Junior. "Green is the new black,"observes Field, pointing to the huge number of manufacturers and retailers who have turned to environmentalism to keep the red ink at bay.

Take the sudden prominence of stroller maker UPPABaby, based in suburban Boston, whose high-end Vista stroller (recommended retail price: $669) is selling briskly despite the economic downturn. "We use organic products whenever possible,"says spokeswoman Sarah Hines, who adds that the fabric used in the firm's bassinet is lined with "organic soybean fiber and cotton"and that the Vista's sun shade provides baby with SPF 50 protection from solar rays.

In fact, the Web sites of many still-successful upscale manufacturers proclaim their commitment to making the earth a better place for parent and baby. Diaper-bag manufacturer Fleurville points out it uses "environmentally friendly fabrics and technologies"in its products, while rival Petunia Pickle Bottom is promoting an " organic snuggle set"on its opening Web page.

Another technique utilized by manufacturers of high-end products -- adding a seemingly low-end line. "The sky is no longer the limit,"says David Jacobs, owner of Brooklyn's popular Mini Jake infant-and-toddler supply store. Luxury infant furniture manufacturer Oeuf, for example, now has a crib it sells for less than $600 -- a discount of 30 percent from the original "Classic"crib but still a heck of a lot more expensive than a more pedestrian crib retailing from $100 to $200 at Target (TGT) or Wal-Mart (WMT). Even high-end Bugaboo got in on the trend, adding a relatively low-cost $500 stroller dubbed " The Bee"to its $600-$1,000 product line in the fall of 2007.

In the view of retail analyst Michael Silverstein, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group and author of Women Want More , the Dow might not be anywhere close to 14,000 any longer, but millions of Americans are continuing to produce two children at most, and having them at older ages, which increases both their desire and capacity to spend money on them.

Silverstein says the key to the new luxury market is to point out that a purchase is an investment in a child's future social capital, whether that is PVC-free infant furniture or high-end tutoring designed to get a kindergartener on track for admission to Harvard. "I don't buy that we have a permanent decrease in consumption or lifestyle choices. People will continue to invest in their children,"Silverstein says.

Pitching its education offerings is a strategy undertaken by exclusive New York parenting gathering spot Citibabes, which opened its doors in 2005. Sporting a $2,000-plus annual membership, it advertised itself as a luxury oasis for moms and their tots, a Soho House for the infant set. This year, Citibabes closed its beauty spa and turned it into a tumbling room instead. Membership is up, and a second location recently opened in suburban Scarsdale, says spokeswoman Kelley McMillan.

In fact, firms with access to equity seem to be positioning themselves for the next great parenting splurge. Specialty chain retailer Buy Buy Baby has continued with expansion plans throughout the recession, opening four new stores in the first two quarters of fiscal year 2009, with hopes of opening eight outlets in the remaining two quarters. Higher-end Giggle opened two new stores this year (in Chicago and Washington, D.C.) and has plans for further expansion. On the goods side, parenting-product powerhouse Maclaren acquired the hip, boutique, modern-nursery-furniture company Netto Collection this past summer.

Bugaboo, too, seems to be hoping the free-spending infant-and-toddler market is on the verge of making a comeback. It debuted a new version of the Bee at the recent annual ABC Kids Expo trade show in Las Vegas. Bugaboo told The Big Money it was still weighing what to charge consumers for the revamped Bee, but those who saw it in Vegas say they were informed that when the model rolls into stores next spring, it will also feature a significantly increased price, bringing lowest-end Bugaboo back above the $600 mark. Perhaps Cookie crumbled too soon?

Read more hot stories Moms Are Talking About.

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5 comments so far | Post a comment now
littlepeapie October 12, 2009, 9:51 AM

I hate it for the people that will lose their jobs, but Cookie was not a good publication…I had a subscription and it felt like it was a subscription to advertisements most of the time…I expect that from Vogue, but not a parent’s/children’s mag.

Dalia Josephson October 19, 2009, 9:02 AM

More evidence: the new Maclaren Grand Tour LX at $900 is selling briskly. Maybe its all the celebrities pushing it or the high tech Strollometer. Either way seems like there is room for a luxury item in this market - if its made well!

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