Baby Bargains Dishes Dirt

"Welcome to the high temple of baby-gear consumerism."

Alan Fields spreads his arms to encompass the entirety of the Babies "R" Us superstore in Westminster — a cavernous expanse saturated in pink, purple and yellow and filled with two-story-high shelves stuffed with play yards and diaper bags, bouncy seats and practice potties. Denise, Alan's wife, pilots him to the section devoted to bottle-feeding. Row after row of baby bottles loom above them, surrounded by accoutrements like bottle brushes and drying racks, powdered-formula dispensers and electronic steam sterilizers. There are angled bottles and disposable bottles, non-drip bottles and hands-free bottles, even bottles with nipples that mimic the feel of a mother's breast.

"These always freak people out," Alan says about the massive variety and selection, over baby wails echoing from a distant aisle and cool jazz dribbling out of the intercom. "Trying to make sense of all this is overwhelming."

But making sense of it all is what this Boulder couple has been doing for thirteen years. The Fieldses are the authors of Baby Bargains, a best-selling book on baby products. They're currently working on an update to the sixth edition of their 600-page tome, and to keep up with the ever-changing industry, they pore over e-mails about product recalls, question manufacturers and specialty retailers all over the world, attend baby-product trade shows and seek out the opinions of the 15,000 parents who post comments on the Baby Bargains online message boards. The Fieldses will describe and grade, from A to F, more than 500 products in the new edition, which retails for $17.95.

Today they're on one of their monthly visits to the world's largest baby-product chain (they also visit competitors such as Target and Wal-Mart) to discover what new merchandise has hit the shelves — and what sort of new trouble they can get into.

Dressed casually, like other parents, they move from the bottles, past bibs printed with cute sayings like "Tax Deduction" and "Spit Happens," to food grinders designed specifically for turning food into baby-safe mush. "If you have a food processor, why do you need one of these?" Denise asks rhetorically.

In the stroller section, the two note with displeasure that, despite trendy European brand names like Mia MODA and Chicco, almost all of the models are made in China. "We imagine there is one giant baby-gear factory over there that makes all of this and then stamps different names on it," snipes Alan. Denise just grins; she lets him make most of the wisecracks. Overseas designers, they say, don't seem to consider the needs of American parents — of which there are many. Case in point: an Italian-owned brand has refused for years to include cup holders on their strollers. "In Europe, coffee is for cafes, not strollers," says Denise, while in this country, it seems physically impossible to push the little one around the park without a soy latte to go.

Then there's Combi, a Japanese brand. "They've never really listened to their customers," grumbles Alan as he rolls out one of Combi's strollers and pulls a tape measure from his pocket. He gauges the height of its handles from the floor: "About 39 inches" — a good three to four inches shorter than other models. While the Combi's dimensions are perfect for shorter-statured Japanese parents, he's worried that taller Americans could suffer a slipped disc from stooping over to reach it.

That information will be included in this stroller's grade in Baby Bargains, a book that has become, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others, the product bible for hundreds of thousands of new and expecting parents in the United States.

"Fortunately or unfortunately, [the book] does have an impact," says George Ivaldi, co-owner of Sorelle, a large U.S. crib manufacturer. "The way the book grades from an A to an F, I'd give the book a B-plus. They've given me a B-minus, but I give it a B-plus. And the only reason I give the book a B-plus is because it comes out every two years. The industry is changing so rapidly. The book comes out every two years; how can they be up to date on everything? If it came out every month, I would give it an A-plus."

New employees at Great Beginnings, an 80,000-foot baby and children's store in Maryland, are given Baby Bargains as a training manual, and when Alan showed up there last spring to autograph the book, 700 parents lined up to get copies signed.

"Without exaggeration, 89 to 90 percent of our customers walk in our door with that book in their hands," says the store's Brian Green. "We joke around here that it is the Michelin guide to having a baby. I think their company is strong enough that they could take a company off the map with a bad review."