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The Little League

Fussy Parents Fuel Shopping Sprees for Baby


When Eloise Colby's sons were babies, the Venice resident had to make a special trip to downtown Los Angeles just to buy diapers.

Today, the 71-year-old grandmother traipses gleefully through a Toys R Us in Culver City, filling her basket with an assortment of baby goods.

Daughter-in-law Suzanne gently dissuades Colby from buying her 7-month-old son, Cameron, yet another ring stacker.

Is the shopping spree prompted by a special occasion?

"Sure. I'm a grandma," Colby says with a grin. "Whenever I go out and see anything for my grandson, I buy it. I can't resist."

Grandmas like Colby make up just one of the groups whose generous buying habits have fueled a boom in baby stores nationwide. In the past several years, retailers have rushed to cash in on baby mania:

* Toys R Us launched its first Babies R Us megastore this year and plans to open as many as 60 by the end of 1997.

* Gymboree, flush with cash after a public stock offering in 1993, plans to open 70 clothing stores by year's end, including five in Canada.

* Gap Inc., which was among the first national chains to recognize the demand for high-quality baby clothes, recently opened the first of several free-standing "new concept" baby stores, which carry a wider selection of merchandise.

Driving the retail explosion is what demographers call the "echo boom"--the big new generation of babies born to baby boomers.

The number of births in this country slowly rose throughout the 1980s, peaking in 1990 with more than 4.1 million babies. Since then, the birth rate has been falling and the Commerce Department predicts it will continue to drop for several more years.

While such a decline means a shrinking customer base, retail analyst Alice Ruth still sees plenty of room for growth.

"It's a $26-billion market for children ages 1 to 10," Ruth said. "Even the big retailers like Baby Gap are only a fraction of that."

Sheer numbers tell only part of the story.

Today's new parents are older than their parents were when they started having babies. These mostly two-income couples tend to have fewer children and more money to spend on the ones they do have.

"More and more of these births are firstborns and much more is spent on firstborns than on seconds or thirds," said Michael Goldstein, chief executive officer of Toys R Us.

And because these new parents work so hard, they demand products that will save them time so they can "use their energy on life-enhancing things like hiking," Goldstein said.

Hence, the popularity of time-saving devices like the Diaper Genie, a diaper pail that individually wraps dirty disposables in plastic, allowing parents to minimize trips to the outside trash bin.

"We're selling Diaper Genies like there's no tomorrow," Goldstein said. "People are buying not one but two to put in different rooms of the house. This isn't a necessity, of course, but when you have a child later in life, you will spend the extra $30 because it makes your life a little easier."

Some people, however, question the wisdom of such purchases.

Jeffrey Hutter, a psychologist and lecturer at UCLA Extension, says the convenience offered by so-called time-saving devices is often an illusion.

"If you start to believe that [these products] are necessary to have a quality of life, you have to work harder to afford them," Hutter says. "One of the unintended consequences of that is that you have less leisure time to enjoy your life."


Nevertheless, the cult of convenience has managed to transform even the apparel side of the baby market.

The popularity of Gymboree clothing, bright mix-and-match playwear with easy-to-fold cuffs at the wrists and legs, is designed specifically to "make it easier for parents to shop," says Roxy Gribben, Gymboree's retail marketing coordinator.

Gap Inc., whose line of baby clothing is distinguished by its adult-like styles (tiny jeans and high-tops, for example) and fabrics, this year opened the first of its "new concept" baby stores, which offer customers everything from bedding and towels to gift items. And several more such stores will open by the end of the year.

Even Talbots, the women's conservative apparel chain, has gotten into the action. The company, which has operated children's stores since 1990, began stocking casual and dressy baby clothes in its kid stores last fall because so many customers asked for them, spokeswoman Margery Brandfon says.

"Our customers like the convenience of being able to find everything in one place," she says. "Our baby line is a logical extension of that concept."

Industry experts say consumers can expect better prices and higher-quality goods as more companies compete for their piece of the lucrative baby market.

And that is good news to people like Rose Nelson, 39, a radio advertising executive who spent her day off recently sifting through the kids' clothing racks at the Warner Bros. Studio Store in Santa Monica.

"It seems as though there's so much out there," Nelson said, "but I find there's a very limited selection--especially for boys."

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