COVER

A boom in the baby business

Ann Walmsley May 20 1985
COVER

A boom in the baby business

Ann Walmsley May 20 1985

A boom in the baby business

COVER

Ann Walmsley

Their parents dress them in designer diapers and tailored overalls, feed them expensive cereal and goat’s milk and promenade them in gleaming Italian strollers. Those fortunate infants, the children of the affluent middle class, own toys, furniture and clothing that are as carefully chosen for them as day care and early childhood education. For one thing, retail sales in the Canadian toy market alone exceeded $1 billion last year—20 per cent of a $5-billion market in children’s goods and services. Statistics Canada figures and U.S. data indicate that parents will pay more than $100,000 (in 1984 dollars) to support a child from infancy until he is 18—with $25,000 spent even before the child is six years old and ready to go to school.

Besides staples, that money will buy such items as plush Gund bears and video cassette recorders to capture the magic moments of childhood. Indeed, spending is so noticeable among many parents that Leonard Kubas, a Toronto retail marketing consultant, refers to their offspring as “skoties”

—his term for “spoiled kids of the 1980s.”

Kubas and other observers say that the increasing number of twoincome families has helped fuel conspicuous consumption. Young mothers, often with established careers, are returning to work in increasing numbers, leaving their children in the hands of nannies or day care workers. In 1973 Statistics Canada figures showed that 543,000 children under the age of 6 had working mothers. Today that number has almost doubled. Said Morton Mendelson, a McGill University psychologist in Montreal: “Some of those parents try to substitute toys for love. But working parents in particular

are honestly trying to do the best for their children.” And some women who postponed having children until they were past 30 say that the wait has made them more indulgent. Toronto designer Bunny McNish, 33, spends $2,000 a year on clothes for her two sons, aged 2 and four months. Said McNish: “I have waited a long time to have my children. I like something, I can afford it, so there I go.” McNish says that owning high-quality

clothes, toys and furniture will develop her children’s sense of self-worth—not spoil them. Declared McNish: “Douglas, my two-year-old, chooses what he will wear each day. He gets an idea of what looking good looks like.” Clearly, Douglas, his brother, Ian, and his mother have a vast array of products from which to choose. Among them:

• Clothing: Most parents prefer the convenience of plastic-lined disposable paper diapers, which even come in Cabbage Patch and denim-look designs for

about the same price as ordinary white diapers—about $35 dollars for a pack of 24. And although infants often soil three sleepers in a day, European companies including Absorba and Stummer are doing a brisk business in cotton styles at $20 to $40 each. Somewhat older children are wearing loose onepiece jumpsuits, among them light cotton French Naf-Nafs, selling for $60. Their parents can accompany them wearing adult versions of this outfit for the same price. Bodythings of Lethbridge, Alta., goes one step further—it offers body-hugging exercise outfits “for mother, daughter and doll” from $60 a set.

Thea Kershner Shaw, 3, of Toronto, is typical of the slightly older welldressed child. Among the items in her closet are six pairs of sturdy cotton OshKosh B’Gosh-label overalls, some bought on sale in New York City and West Palm Beach for $7 each—$33 below list price in Canada. There is also a yellow Klimagers jumpsuit with oversized washing instructions printed on the knee, a $120 Scubiou pink printed dress and Noah Li socks with rubberized stars on the soles to help children stay upright. Bette Kershner, her mother, willingly pays i more for clothing made of natural fibres because she and her daughter like the texture of the material. But Kershner said that Thea has more clothes than she needs. Added Kershner: “The reason the wardrobe is so big is that I wanted her to have things even when she did not need them. So I rationalized buying a bigger size.”

• Food: The Gerber Products Co. of Fremont, Mich., is still king, holding 68 per cent of a $l-billion baby food market in North America with such time-tested products as strained carrots and peaches in glass jars. But during the past year the Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp.

of Fort Washington, Pa., has tried to increase its 17-per-cent share of the market by offering such name-brand fruits and vegetables as Golden Delicious apple sauce and Chiquita bananas. And last fall Pittsburgh Pa.-based H.J. Heinz Co., with 15 per cent of the market, introduced an alternative to jars —dried baby food. Heinz produces 23 varieties of dried, flaked fruits, vegetables and dinners—all needing only the addition of water before serving. The company’s main selling point for the new products: they are less wasteful than food in jars because parents prepare only as much as the child needs. On a smaller scale, such companies as Biofamilia of Switzerland report good sales of muesli, a whole-grain cereal costing almost $6 per 25-ounce box. And proprietors of health food stores across the

country report that sales of goat’s milk are up because mothers believe that cow’s milk can cause allergies and behavioral problems in small children. In Halifax, The Bean Sprout sells more than 90 litres a week at $1.98 per litre.

• Furniture: Recently, half the children born in Canada have been the first babies in a family, and their parents want nursery furniture that is sturdy, stylish and new, particularly when buying cribs. The reason: the bars on some older cribs were so far apart that children squeezing their heads between the slats risked strangulation. Many parents, when they are satisfied that the crib is safe, choose solid maple or oak models, often with rounded cor-

ners that recall the art deco styles of the 1930s. Muurame of Finland has earned a reputation among Canadian designers as “the Gucci of children’s furniture.” Made from solid Scandinavian birch and bearing seven coats of white enamel, the Finnish manufacturer’s bunk beds range from $350 to $1,800. Noted Halifax lawyer Deborah Carver, who has a four-month-old son: “Everything Scandinavian is appealing to Yuppie parents.” Even the traditional potty chair has been updated. Combi, a Hong Kong company, makes a $30 swan-shaped version that both entertains the child straddling it and deflects spills with its long, curved neck.

• Transportation: Two swivelwheeled strollers—Aprica’s light plastic and aluminum Japanese models and heavier steel Peregos from Italy—are

current favorites, although they range in price from $120 to $300. Said Halifax lawyer Karin McCaskill, 31: “I chose a Perego for two reasons—recommendations from other baby-boomer mothers and safety. You cannot put your child in a Sherman tank to cross the road, but the Perego is a little sturdier and more visible.”

• Toys: Before many new parents buy a toy for their child, they want to know whether it will help develop motor skills, hand-eye co-ordination or social graces. Johnson & Johnson Baby Products Co. has produced “developmental toys,” each equipped with a 16-page booklet telling parents how a child can best use the item. For one thing, the

instructions accompanying the $16 Rolling Circus (a simple plastic rattle) tells parents that there is a difference between “familiar” play (when a child practises skills he has mastered) and experimental “exploratory” play. The guide even suggests using the toy to massage the baby. Similarly, magazine ads for Angel Bunny products by Mattel Inc. use an educational approach, with pictures of toddlers supposedly saying: “A boat! For my motor skills!” Parenthood for many Canadians means a house strewn with stuffed animals, garish plastic toys and the sounds of videogames. Even David Cox, a 37year-old owner of Kids Only Market in Vancouver, a collection of 29 small stores selling everything from clothes to kites, cannot leave juvenile clutter at work: a $600 Quadro tubular climbing

structure for his 2 V2 -year-old son, Benjamin, dominates his family room. But authors Mark Breslin, Eve Drobot and Larry Horowitz argue that the compulsion to buy items for a baby only extends a well-established pattern which they satirize in their new book Zen & Now, The Baby Boomer’s Guide to Middle Life. They wrote: “When you already own a micro-computer, Cuisinart, telephone answering machine, home video system (including camera and monitor), one or more futons, his-and-hers Universal Gyms, an indoor herb garden, two or more dhurrie rugs and a pasta machine, you feel ready for an animate object.” And, clearly, the accessories that go with it.