Baby Bargains Dishes Dirt

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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.

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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