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Marketers at Expo Cut Teeth on a Growth Industry--Babies

October 22, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer.

In the current movie "Baby Boom," Diane Keaton launches a business with a line of gourmet baby food. In real life, Jane Rollins of Topanga has done it with a new style of nursing bra.

Barbara Peterson Davis of Huntington Beach hopes to cash in on the baby-product market with an exercise videotape aimed at toddlers. Paula Moskowitz of Van Nuys is banking on personalized birth announcements.

The three women were among 50 exhibitors, many with similar home businesses, who set up booths at the San Fernando Valley's Great American Baby Expo last Sunday at the Warner Center Marriott Hotel. The entrepreneurs were kept busy by a steady stream of mothers--some pregnant, many pushing strollers--who filled the aisles.

A New Nursing Bra

Although the title of Keaton's new movie may be slightly misleading--government figures for the 1980s show births in the U.S. holding steady at about 3.7 million a year--consumer spending on babies is booming. Sales figures for infant furniture, for example, more than doubled from 1979 to 1986, and other categories of baby goods have seen similar growth.

Today's new parents often are older and have more money than those of 10 or 20 years ago, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and other government agencies. Parents are eager for new items, and people like Rollins are just as eager to get their products to market.

"The idea drove me crazy when I was lying in bed at night, because I hated the bras I had," Rollins, a mother of two, said, remembering her nursing-bra design. "My concept of the center-front opening was new. There was nothing like it."

Other nursing bras open from the top, an operation often requiring two hands to get beneath outer clothing. Rollins' Mother's Wear bra, which sells for $17, has snaps or Velcro fasteners at the more-accessible middle--not the biggest difference in the world, perhaps, but enough to create a successful business.

Rollins said her mail-order operation is 5 1/2 years old and prospering.

"I get orders from Singapore, Saudi Arabia, lots from Canada, France, all over," she said.

Like many of the customers at the baby expo, Julie and Tom Clarke of Panorama City looked at everything before deciding what to buy. They settled on a sun canopy that attaches to a car seat or stroller, and on locks that will keep 6-month-old Brittany out of cupboards and medicine cabinets. Tom Clarke termed himself typical of many new parents.

"A lot of the old baby-boomers have their careers cemented," he said of his group. "They've achieved what they set out to achieve, and they find out they're not fulfilled. They're looking for something to fill that gap, and it's children."

Lorraine Torsney of Chatsworth, mother of 1-year-old Brian, said parenthood has become a fashion of sorts.

"It really is in," she said. "Your friends have babies too, and you get together at the park."

Creative Parenthood, a group that arranges cooperative baby-sitting and other activities in the Valley, was among the nonprofit organizations at the baby expo.

"People come to the Valley to buy houses," said president Caryn Barkin. "They're looking for communities and neighborhoods that are like the ones they had as children."

Although exhibitors and parents have been brought together in the Valley at a "family fair," Sunday's event was the first devoted exclusively to babies.

More Baby Expos

"This is the fifth one I've done," said Wanda Jones of Lomita, a mother of three, who organized the event. "I heard about others that people were doing, and I decided to try it. It's been a good success."

At least two other companies stage baby expos locally. One of them has a three-day event planned Oct. 23-25 at the Santa Monica Convention Center.

Jones charged exhibitors $250 to set up a booth at Sunday's expo. Nonprofit groups received booths free or at a discount. Admission for the public was $4 for adults and $2.50 for grandparents, with children under 12 admitted free.

"One thing that customers like is they won't find a lot of these products in stores," Jones said. "There's a lot of hand-made things and unusual things."

Davis, one of the exhibitors, believes her $19.95 product, the "Workout With Mommy and Me" videotape, is in that category.

"There was a tape for toddlers a few years ago, but it was more like an obstacle course," said Davis, a gymnastics coach. "This one teaches dance and movement to children 2 to 6 years old."

Besides drawing birth announcements, Moskowitz, a calligrapher, hand paints decorations onto toys, food trays and other baby items. She said her business is in the black after just six months.

J. Aaron Brown, a Nashville, Tenn., songwriter and performer, scored a coup this year when his collection of songs was nominated for a Grammy in the children's music category. The audiocassette of those songs, "A Child's Gift of Lullabies," is marketed locally by Happy Times, a Van Nuys company.

"There are other lullaby cassettes, but they're only a half-hour long," a saleswoman at the expo said. "We're an hour long, so you're sure your baby will go to sleep."

Booths also offered an array of baby clothes and toys, plastic clips that attach a baby's bottle to his shirt, a line of all-natural soaps and lotions, baby-sized exercise mats, and two devices that fasten a baby's shirt to his diapers.

But, although all exhibitors claimed that their products would make parenthood easier and more rewarding than in previous generations, not everyone agreed. A skeptic was Diane Chordigian of Granada Hills, a grandmother who attended the expo.

"The convenience stuff is fine," she said, "but, with the drugs and other problems in the world, it's harder to have kids today. I'd rather be a mother in my day than this."

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