Longform

Baby Bargains Dishes Dirt

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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.

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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