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."

At Baby World & Big Kids II in Denver, manager Lou Rosenthal keeps a reference copy under the counter — though it's hardly necessary, since half of his weekend customers bring their own. "Some people just don't have any idea of what they are buying. If it says it in the book, they will buy it," he says. "It eliminates a lot of other choices."

While some have questioned the Fieldses' credentials as baby-product experts, the couple points out how much research they do; in addition, as the parents of two boys, now eleven and fourteen, their expertise also comes from their own experiences — like most parents.

Back at Babies "R" Us, Alan is marching down the aisle of high chairs, carefully noting the interior dimensions of each seat, to see if an infant could actually fit comfortably inside. Denise, at his side, jots into a notepad. "It's a bit high," he declares of a Graco chair whose feeding tray is seven and a half inches from the seat bottom, suggesting that it would probably come up to an infant's chin. "That's pushing it," he pronounces of another model whose tray is six and a half inches from the seat back, making it more likely that baby will dribble food into his lap. "Never try to fold one of these on live television," he advises as he wrestles with a plastic seat. Three years ago, he struggled mightily with an infant car seat during a segment on the Today show — one of many TV appearances the couple has made.

Finally, they come to the end of the line: a particularly posh model with the sleek Italian name Peg Perego. Alan reads off its measurements with disbelief: nine inches high by seven inches wide. Its manufacturers must have been imagining an infant who could scare small dogs and dunk a basketball. "For this, you pay $200," mutters Alan.

A purple-clad employee wanders by, eyeing the couple's tape measure, notebook and aura of authoritative indignation, as well as their obvious lack of an infant in tow. "Do you need anything?" he asks warily. They wave him off. If management knew the two were on the premises, they wouldn't be happy. While Babies "R" Us stores stock 10,000 different items — including Consumer Reports Best Baby Products and a baby-health-related title by the Fieldses, Baby 411 — they will not carry Baby Bargains.

Soon the couple reaches the store's back wall, which is packed with baby bedding. Denise is passionate about overpriced products — expensive Bugaboo strollers give her fits — so crib sets costing hundreds of dollars and featuring plush quilts, crib bumpers and pillows, nearly cause apoplexy.

Not to mention the safety issues. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has recommended that crib linens be limited to a fitted sheet and a simple cotton blanket. "This is how babies suffocate. This is not supposed to be used in the crib at all," fumes Denise. "This is the baby industry at its most ridiculous."

Despite their skepticism, however, the Fieldses say they are far from anti-capitalist Luddites. "I would never say consumerism is a bad thing," says Denise. "The more competition, the better. What is better than choice? The people who produce the best products with the best safety record usually come out on top." The problem, Denise argues, is the emphasis on stuff: "I think it encourages people to be so focused on product that they forget the whole focus and point of marriage and family."

While they still sell well, designer strollers are so 2003. Leather seats, single-action braking systems, all-terrain tires, titanium frames — it's all passé. The next big thing, the hot new baby-product trend, is high chairs. Denise and Alan consider this development as they sit in their home office, surrounded by marketing pamphlets from the recent ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas, where they talked with more than 500 vendors over three days.

There they'd seen indignations like the Fresco highchair, a $400 cross between a barber's chair and an egg cup that would be perfect "if Mork and Mindy had a baby," says Alan. The seat, which can be transformed into a futuristic newborn "sleeping pod," is encased in a plastic shell with microsuede upholstery inside. It is available in various colors: harvest orange, Bermuda blue or, for particularly risqué parents, midnight black. For the same price, there was the Flair Elite, featuring hydraulic-lift height adjustment and a pristine white plastic seat perfect for accentuating the puréed carrot that would surely be regurgitated all over it. They'd also discovered a remnant of the stroller-as-status-symbol craze: the $800 iCandy Apple. Who, exactly, was the stroller's target audience? they'd asked. Wasn't it obvious? responded the vendor: Gwyneth Paltrow.

The expo had also revealed the free-range, all-natural, organic fad. "The baby industry is waking up ten years late about organics," says Alan. But manufacturers are making up for lost time. A representative of a Romanian crib designer had bragged about a model finished in all-natural beeswax. "He made me smell the crib," says Denise. "He said it smelled like honey." The couple discovered an "organic" $300 mattress stuffed with coconut-husk filling and horsehair. Or was it mohair fleece?

The two begin poring over glossy brochures and googling websites, debating the relative urine-absorption capacities of horse and goat hair. Alan looks up from his studies, a bewildered look on his face. "This is what I do for a living."

The Fieldses face each other across an expansive, cluttered desk — Denise, the sensible researcher and wordsmith, on one side, and Alan, the high-energy marketing expert, on the other. This is the extent of their publishing company, Windsor Peak Press (a name that's meant to evoke the sophistication of British royalty and the splendor of their nearby natural surroundings but "really means nothing," says Denise). Here they cut through the latest overblown baby crazes with impunity, shattering slogans and misconceptions with their trademark snarky humor and unabashed pragmatism.

Baby Bargains, the book, begins with a disenchanting revelation: "Murphy's Law of Baby Toys says your baby's happiness with a toy is inversely related to the toy's price." And the eye-openers don't stop there. The book gives cribs sold at Wal-Mart under the name Cosco an "F," noting that "Cosco must translate as 'recall' in Canadian."

Regarding diaper stackers, a popular linen bag used to store diapers, they write: "Apparently, bedding makers must think stacking diapers on the shelf of your changing table or storing them in a drawer is a major etiquette breach. Take my word for it: babies are not worried if their diapers are out in plain sight."

And the authors lambaste car-seat manufacturer Graco for merely distributing a press release when nearly a million of their seats were found to be defective instead of sending recall notices to the parents who'd mailed in warranty and registration cards. "Graco's total costs would be about $75,000," they calculate in the book. "That seems like a small price to pay for a company with $600 million in annual sales."

In their book, they document crib companies that have changed names to distance themselves from past product recalls. They've pushed furniture manufacturers to post the results of lead-paint tests on their websites and encouraged retailers to stop displaying cribs outfitted in unnecessary and controversial soft bedding. In many cases, they've gotten what they've asked for. And the couple actively disputes the Juvenile Products Manufacturer Association's pro-safety image; the Fieldses acquired internal JPMA documents detailing attempts to downplay concerns about baby-bottle and crib-bedding safety and published them on www.windsorpeak.com under the headline "JPMA-gate."

Their concerns are often valid — and timely. Over the past few months, toy manufacturers have recalled more than a million products because they contain lead paint. Over the summer, many baby-product experts — including the Fieldses — changed their baby-bottle recommendations after a National Institutes of Health panel raised concerns that the chemical bisphenol A, contained in many of the most popular plastic baby bottles, could cause neurological problems in children. And in September, a million cribs were recalled because of strangulation risks — the largest recall of full-sized cribs in U.S. history.

Jars of baby food and boxes of booties sit on a desk corner of their office, swag that will be given away. To maintain objectivity, the couple refuses to take handouts from manufacturers, won't include ads in their books and insists on self-publishing. "A lot of publishers don't want to offend anyone," says Alan, "so you get a lot of milquetoast-y advice in books."

That independence hasn't hindered their success; in fact, it gives them a larger share of profits from book sales — which aren't too shabby to begin with. When Baby Bargains was first published in 1994, the Fieldses printed and distributed 15,000 copies to Barnes & Noble, Borders and other bookstores. Last year, they sold 57,801 copies, outselling the Consumer Reports guide by 45,000 copies and making it a bestseller every week in Nielsen BookScan's "Family/Relationships" category, where their competition includes titles like What to Expect When You're Expecting and Family First, by Dr. Phil.

On the walls and shelves around the Fieldses, in between photos of their sons, are framed articles about them from Money and People magazines, plus "Oprah" coffee mugs, mementos from their multiple appearances on the show. Through the window is a stunning vista of the Flatirons — literally a million-dollar view, considering their sizable, immaculate Victorian on Boulder's Mapleton Hill.

In total, the Fieldses have sold 1.6 million books. The largest share belongs to Baby Bargains, but their other primary publication, Bridal Bargains, isn't too far behind. That book, which the couple still publishes, broke down the wedding industry the same way Baby Bargains takes baby-product manufacturers to task.

There have been other books, as well. They are currently phasing out a Baby Bargains followup called Toddler Bargains. The book didn't do as well as they'd hoped, Alan says, because when children reach that age, their parents "run out of time to read." Their 1993 book Your New House, a consumer guide to building or buying a house, sold well but proved too time-consuming to keep up to date. They've even taken on Mother Nature herself, with the book Partly Sunny: The Weather Junkie's Guide to Outsmarting the Weather.

But babies and weddings are enough to keep them busy. "They both deal with very emotional purchases, and that tends to be the catalyst for things to go wrong," says Alan. "When you combine emotions and commerce, it's like nitroglycerin."

Take it from the Fieldses: They've learned from personal experience.

There's a longstanding rumor in bridal-industry circles that the Fieldses must have experienced one of the worst weddings imaginable.

"Because this young couple had problems planning their wedding, as all couples do, they decided to attack the bridal industry," wrote Brides magazine publisher Elliot Marion in a 1992 magazine article about Bridal Bargains.

"Ignore all information in this book unless you want a couple of wed-in-Vegas journalists to plan your most sacred day," sneered a recent review on Amazon.com.

And after People magazine profiled the couple, Denise got a cranky call from someone who told her that just because she had a rotten wedding day doesn't mean she should ruin it for everyone else.

"People have accused us of having a terrible experience that launched us in a jihad against the industry," says Alan with a laugh. "But, no, our wedding was fine."

The two met in 1984 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Denise, a native Coloradan, was studying Elizabethan England, and Alan, from Dallas, was focused on product marketing. They moved to Austin, Texas, after graduating, but decided to travel back to Loveland — Denise's home town — to get married.

As they planned the big day, the two got the idea for the book and began secretly shopping gown stores and wedding-cake bakers around Austin, pretending they were going to get married in town. Along the way, they discovered that getting to the bottom of the bridal industry wasn't as simple as rating local wedding DJs.

In 1939, a typical wedding cost $392.30, or $5,700 in today's dollars. By 1990, it was up to $15,280, according to a study produced by Conde Nast, which published several bridal magazines. In 2006, the average wedding cost $27,856, an amount roughly equal to 58 percent of the country's median income.

Industry insiders say today's fiancés (and their parents) are happy to fork over the dough, since people are getting married later in life and therefore have more disposable income. These days, each couple "wants to make a statement about who they are and where they are headed," says David Wood, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants. "Their marriage is so important, and people want it to last a lifetime. They are trying to set the tone for the rest of their lives together."

Skeptical outsiders, however, say the impetus behind the $161 billion industry isn't so simple. "There's always been a lot of money spent on weddings. It's not an entirely new phenomenon. But now they are seen entirely as a consumer event," says Rebecca Mead, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the Perfect Wedding. "Marriage used to be the beginning of your adult life, the time you left home, all these big, big changes, and now for most people, those things aren't true anymore. So I think, in a way, we have to make them more significant."

Wedding professionals, she adds, are happy to encourage them: "The people in the wedding industry have realized the bridal consumers are at a very attractive time in their lives, if you are in the business of selling stuff. They are young, attractive consumers, and the wedding industry knows this is an occasion that people are willing to spend full price on things. Nobody wants to be seen as cheap on their wedding day."

But there's a difference between being cheap and getting swindled, the Fieldses say. Their own wedding was a simple affair at a dude ranch along the Big Thompson River in 1989. Denise wore her mother's gown, and the couple found good deals on flowers and a cake at local shops. "Nothing went wrong," says Denise, before admitting to a small hullabaloo when her dress's zipper got stuck.

That was nothing compared to the boondoggles they discovered researching the wedding industry. In 1988, before their own big day, they published 500 copies of an Austin-based wedding consumer guide. After their wedding, they moved on to wedding guides for Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Diego and Denver. In the books, the couple focused on something they had seen repeatedly in news stories: bridal shops that had closed unexpectedly, leaving brides-to-be who had paid hundreds or thousands in deposits without a dress or even a refund. "It wasn't supposed to be an exposé," says Alan. "We kind of happened into it."

They began tracking these shops and noting "guerrilla sales tactics," such as dress stores that purposely ordered wrong-sized gowns so brides had to pay for costly alterations, and florists who marked up costs based on what type of cars customers drove.

They railed against exorbitant charges, like try-on fees at dress stores and cake-cutting premiums at reception sites. They reported to the media that some bridal magazines refused to print ads for dress-rental companies to keep gown makers happy. And they reprinted provocative quotes they discovered in bridal trade publications, like this one, from an unnamed bridal magazine publisher: "Never before in a woman's life, and never again, is she going to be worth this much money to a marketer. There is no price resistance, and she is completely open to new brands."

The Fieldses figured that 10 percent of the industry involved fraud and abuse, amounting to $1 billion a year.

"We were the people who told you the stuff about weddings nobody told you about," says Alan. "It probably made us popular, but it drove the wedding industry nuts."

They were banned from trade shows, and a bridal magazine editor attacked them in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, saying their advice shouldn't be trusted because they hadn't worked in the industry. ("I think that works to our advantage," says Denise.)

"They decided to make a lot of money chopping up industries," says Richard Markel, director of the Association for Wedding Professionals International, in a recent phone interview. "The gown salons have been facing a national crisis since the Internet came about. And they are recommending people go to the gown salons, try on dresses, and then buy them online. It costs somewhere around a quarter of a million to open a gown salon, and they are encouraging readers to waste these people's time and energy and not make a sale. In my mind, I would call that fraud."

Consumers called it useful. In 1990, the local guides were replaced by a national version, Bridal Bargains, and praise spread like wildfire.

"A friend told me, 'I will not allow you to get married without this book," remembers Hilary Winiarz, a Chicago resident who now serves as a message-board moderator on the Fieldses' website. "I think people fall for these books as in fall in love — because they are all about helping you parse through the chaos.... I planned my entire wedding around Bridal Bargains."

In 1991, the Fieldses got a long-distance call. Oprah wanted them on her show — that Monday. The attention tripled their book sales. They moved back to Colorado and built a 3,500-square-foot home in Monument before eventually settling in Boulder. One newspaper called them the "Ralph Naders of the bridal industry," and it seemed like nothing they could do would top such success.

That is, until Denise got pregnant.

They couldn't help it. The appeal of the "all-in-one" travel-system stroller was overwhelming. It could transform from baby carriage to a car seat to an infant carrier to a toddler stroller — with the baby in the middle of it all never having to wake up! With visions of a blissful tears-free existence, the Fieldses, expecting their first child, threw down $150 for it. They would come to regret it.

"I remember cursing it from the moment I took it from the box," says Denise. "Those suckers are bulky and ridiculously heavy. I hate them."

By that point, the Fieldses had already decided to use Denise's 1993 pregnancy as the impetus to expand their empire. And in 1994, they published Baby Bargains. But while they had already tangled with persnickety bridal consultants and egotistical cake bakers, they weren't prepared for the baby-product industry. There is much, much more at stake, Alan says. "The wedding industry is ripe with ripoffs and scams and hucksterism; the baby industry doesn't have that," he adds. A wedding may cost $25,000, but a baby can easily trump that in just the first few years. In fact, according to Baby Bargains, raising a child to age eighteen costs $1.4 million.

Here was another rite of passage that had been utterly commoditized, the couple realized, where unchecked retail therapy was being used to soothe mass social angst.

"Generation X are the primary parents for very young children right now," says Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. "And this was the home-alone generation. By and large the children of baby boomers, the majority of these kids came from divorced households, or their parents both worked full-time. Forty percent of them were latchkey kids by the time they were eight. They had the highest enrollment in child care. The upshot is that this is a generation that is so fearful that their child will feel abandoned, because they have such fear of abandonment from their own crummy home-alone childhoods. It is this feeling of psychological need bound up with consumerism plus the need to do everything under the sun for the child that makes this generation suckers."

But manufacturers argue they're not out to sucker parents; they say the expanding baby-product market means there are more choices — and more well-designed products — for increasingly sophisticated consumers. "This is an incredibly emotional time of life for people, and you want to provide the best for your child. And best is subjective," says Kari Boiler, North American marketing director for Bugaboo, a stroller company with models featuring aluminum construction, high-tech suspension, one-handed steering and components that allow the models to transform from a baby carriage to an infant stroller — along with price tags from $529 to $899. "Bugaboo isn't just a luxury item and fashion item. Everything that goes into the stroller is for the best of the child. It's very hard to purchase a well-designed product without a premium."

Jamie Beal, spokeswoman for Babies "R" Us, agrees. Since opening its first store in 1996, Babies "R" Us has expanded to 256 locations nationwide while many smaller stores have gone out of business, so parents-to-be across the nation now have equal access to every type of product imaginable. "Babies 'R' Us is the quintessential source for everything new and expectant parents need when preparing for baby's arrival, setting up a nursery, traveling with a newborn and establishing a safe environment for baby," Beal says by e-mail. "Parents today have limitless resources available to them to read, listen to or download as much or as little information as possible. This is making parents more savvy than ever before and much more aware of juvenile industry trends.

"Regardless of the mother's age, education or background," she adds, "they are first-time moms together and they all want to make sure they have the must-have items and make the best decisions for their baby."

But many of those must-haves aren't must-haves at all, argues Bart Rivkin, owner of Guys and Dolls, one of several independent baby stores left in the Denver area. "A baby needs very little. They need their parents, they need to be loved, they need to be fed, and they need to be kept dry. So all this fancy paraphernalia that's out there for children — and there is a lot of it — is unnecessary," he says.

Rivkin estimates that a quarter of his customers walk in carrying Baby Bargains, which he says can help parents cut through the clutter — though he worries that some readers may use it to the detriment of their own common sense. "Does the consumer use it as a guide, or do they use it as a bible?" he asks.

Representatives at Babies "R" Us, however, don't like to talk about the book. "Baby Bargains is not currently available in our stores," says Beal. She won't say why.

The Fieldses have an idea. While they declined to serve as expert witnesses in a open class-action consumer lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania against Babies "R" Us for allegedly colluding with baby-product manufacturers to set minimum industry-wide prices, they aren't fans of the country's number-one baby store — which they see as having unfairly assumed the role of expert in all things baby-related. "As parents, we don't have our parents around. They aren't guiding us around these stores," says Denise. "We are looking for authority in life, and since Babies "R" Us sells baby products all day long, we assume they must know something about them."

The command center at Windsor Peak Press is currently helping with some full-scale damage control. Denise is flipping through medical books, looking up baby mortality rates while Alan talks on the phone. "You guys are outnumbered here. It is ugly," he tells longtime family friend Ari Brown, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics who is preparing an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal.

When he hangs up, Alan throws up his hands. "We've had a bomb drop on us," he says. By "we," he means parents across the country. The bombshell he's referring to is former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, who appeared on Larry King Live and other media outlets saying her son's autism was linked to the vaccinations he was given as a baby. While medical experts dispute the claim, the parents of one of Brown's patients has already canceled a routine vaccination, preferring to risk their kid's getting sick rather than have to suffer like McCarthy's son. The Fieldses are sure the same thing is happening nationwide.

The situation has a personal side for the couple. One of their sons has Asperger's syndrome, a pervasive developmental disorder. "We have a son with Asperger's syndrome, and we were watching Jenny McCarthy say if you don't get the help she recommends, your child is lost to the world," says Denise angrily. "She is an actress, not a doctor."

Several years ago, Brown approached the Fieldses and asked if they would help her write a book that, among other things, advocated that vaccines are important and safe.

"It seemed to fit with the same mission we had," says Denise, who co-authored the 2004 guide to sleep, health and nutrition titled Baby 411. Leaving the medical advice to Brown, Denise infused the book with the same witticisms and pragmatism as her other tomes. But she had still crossed a line from dispensing advice about baby products to weighing in on infant health and safety, and some wondered why the Fieldses should be considered any more reliable than Jenny McCarthy.

"I know the Baby Bargains books are extremely popular, and they have been for a long time. Some things in them seem like opinion, and with others, you wonder, 'How did they come up with that?'" says Amy Chezem, communication director for the JPMA. "It's important to find out how they base their opinions. Is it based on a poll of 1,000 moms, or did they talk to pediatricians?"

The Fieldses admit their product reviews are based on personal opinions — their own and their readers'. "We are not dropping bowling balls on cribs," says Alan. "I'm not testing it like Consumer Reports, but I am talking to people who use these things in the real world. If people didn't believe our recommendations, it wouldn't sell. I think that's the bottom line." The Fieldses promise a money-back guarantee if a Baby Bargains book doesn't save a reader $250 or if Bridal Bargains doesn't save $500. Of the 100,000 or so books that sell each year, they say they get fewer than a hundred returned copies.

The Fieldses also point out that they use scientific and medical experts to make decisions on issues such as baby-bottle chemicals and infant vaccinations. And others back them up.

Although Kids in Danger, a non-profit product-safety advocacy group doesn't endorse any commercial products, it does recommend the Fieldses' book. "Baby Bargains is the one source on general baby products that includes safety information," says Nancy Cowles, executive director of the Chicago-based agency. "In other sources, there is not the kind of analysis about these products."

Even the federal agency in charge of regulating many baby products, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, doesn't offer much help. "I think most parents are surprised to find out that there is no requirement that any of these baby products be tested for safety before they are sold," Cowles says.

Baby Bargains has also done "a marvelous job of tapping into the parents' kingdom, and what goes bad with a product from a parent's point of view," says Sandy Jones, co-author of several past editions of the Consumer Reports Guide to Baby Products.

"Consumer Reports may give a nod to a large, one-size-fits-all car seat because it tested well in a laboratory," she points out, "while Alan and Denise Fields will say, 'Parents hate this seat. It takes up too much space and the buckles don't work right.'"

It's advice the Fieldses plan to keep giving even as their personal experiences with infants fade into memory. "We're stuck. It's like Groundhog Day," cracks Alan. "We have baby food in the fridge, and our kids are eleven and fourteen. It's absurd."

Despite being the children of the nation's frugal-family experts, Denise says her sons don't have it rough. Sure, their nurseries were bare, she admits: "To be perfectly honest, babies don't care." Nowadays, however, as the only grandchildren on both sides of the family, they get more than their share of goodies. "They are hopelessly spoiled when it comes to toys," she says. "They want for nothing."

As their boys get older and the Fieldses grow out of the wedding-planning and baby-making generations, some people wonder if there's one more topic they will investigate. "The third leg of the triangle is probably funerals," Alan says, adding that there are no current plans for a Death Bargains. "We just haven't gone there."


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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner