For Firstborns, Secondhand Fits the Bill
The New York Times
July 9, 2009
MICAH HILDENBRAND and her husband, Eric, are corporate lawyers who live in an affluent neighborhood in Washington and drive a Lexus SUV. But when their son, Chase, was born in January, they trawled friends’ garages rather than shop at places like Buy Buy Baby, the megastore that caters to new parents.
Nearly all of Chase’s belongings are hand-me-downs or were bought secondhand, from the onesies to the fully tricked-out Bugaboo Cameleon — the top of the line Dutch stroller that the Hildenbrands bought on a listserv for a fraction of its $900 price tag. Mrs. Hildenbrand said that a good salary wasn’t reason enough to spend money that might not always be there.
“We want to hedge in case something does happen,” she said.
Observers of baby consumerism say such caution is not unusual these days. It is mirrored in the declining fortunes of the $343-million “play and discover” market — toys and goods marketed to parents of children under a year old — which has fallen by more than a third over the last year and a half. The recession, it seems, has catalyzed a moment of reflection among the formerly free-spending new-parent set: used is good; free is best. New purchases have become more considered, less spontaneous.
Experts say the children’s market is just playing catch-up to a radical consumer shift taking place across all luxury sectors. But some say the new attitude reflects a broader change in perspective when it comes to conspicuous consumption for young children. No longer is it necessary to buy a thousand-dollar changing table in order to prove your parental savvy and breadth of love; if anything, the opposite is true.
THIS new frugality is celebrated by anti-consumerism groups, dreaded by retailers, and mused over by social scientists who say we might be on the cusp of raising a new generation of depression-era babies. Not only are children named after their grandparents these days, but all those Rubys, Sadies and Harrys at the playgrounds may end up thinking like them as well.
“The recession has liberated us from a lot of the consumer expectations so that we can have a big enough space to feel really comfortable just giving our kids a pot and a spoon,” said Robbie Blinkoff, a cultural anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, an ethnographic marketing research firm in Baltimore.
Susan Linn, the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, agrees. The recession, she said, provides a chance for families to back away from “a pattern of escalation in spending on children.”
She added, “This is a good time to look at whether this is good for kids generally and not just for families whose income has been diminished.”
Retailers like Lisa Mahar have certainly noticed a change.
“Three years ago, in the heyday of the moment, someone would come into the shop and say, ‘I want the most expensive thing you have,’ ” said Ms. Mahar, a designer of educational toys and the owner of Kid O, a toy shop in Manhattan.
But now, she said: “People are much more discreet how they shop. Large orders are placed on the phone. And at birthday parties I see a difference. No one will bring a $300 LikeaBike anymore. Culturally, it’s just not acceptable anymore. Even for those who can afford a $200 toy.”
Sam Apple, a writer and father of three who lives in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and recently wrote a memoir called “American Parent,” said, “This is definitely a Craigslist economy.”
Mr. Apple’s book navigates the tricky shoals of parenting, child-rearing and shopping from the bewildered perspective of the inundated new dad. Like the Hildenbrands, Mr. Apple and his wife, Jennifer, thumb their noses at what the blogosphere calls the “baby industrial complex.” For their first child, the house was filled with new, luxe and name-brand items.
“New parents are the ideal targets for marketers,” he said. “They’re confused and anxious almost by definition.”
But for their new twins, they received a hand-me-down double stroller from friends and they plucked cribs from secondhand sales.
Some analysts are surprised at how quickly new parents have begun to wise up.
Tim Dowd, a senior analyst for Packaged Facts, a research firm based in Rockville, Md., said that the play and discover market has had what he calls a “reversal of fortune” over the last year.
While that market climbed 75 percent from 2003 to 2007, last year was a different story altogether. In the first 10 months of 2008, even before the economy had experienced its most marked downturn, the play and discover market began to collapse, losing about one-third of its retail value, Mr. Dowd said.
For many companies, it has only become worse. Mattel — owner of Fisher-Price, Barbie and American Girl, among others — saw a 15 percent drop in first-quarter sales this year. Dorel, the parent of the company that makes the haute Dutch stroller, the Quinny, and the plush Maxi-Cosi infant car seat, reported a 17.7 percent decrease in sales for their juvenile segment in North America and Europe for the same period.
Even Bugaboo, the company that is at the forefront of the luxe stroller movement, has felt the pinch. After growing nearly 33 percent each year from 2005 to 2008, a spokeswoman for the company recently said it is now hoping to clear 3 percent growth this year.
MEANWHILE, brands like Skip Hop, known for its “Duo” diaper bag — which, at $54, hit the midprice sweet spot — are doing well. In fact, 2008 was Skip Hop’s best year yet, said Ellen Diamant, a founder.
“People are being less indulgent,” she said, but they are expecting a lot more for their money. “They want gorgeous design, they want ethical, they want organic. But they don’t want to pay what they would have paid a year ago.”
Trying to hit that same note, Oeuf, the line of modern cribs that entered the market at $900, recently introduced a $500 crib made of eco-friendly wood.
“Fashionability of product is beginning to change,” said Chris Sanderson, a director of Future Laboratory, a trend-forecasting group based in London. “Something that is cool has longevity, inherent sustainability and good design.”
The reason for the change, Mr. Sanderson said, has much to do with an “emotional response to the glut of consumerism.”
Such consciousness is championed by those who have long protested the encroachment of consumerism into parenting. Until recently, children in America received, on average, 70 new toys a year, Ms. Linn said. She calls the recession an opportunity to have a conversation with children about the rampant spending on their behalf.
Marketers, she said, “use fear to make parents buy things they really don’t need. We are not going to live sustainably in a culture that is built on excessive consumption.”
Jennifer Cavalleri and Dan Durkin, who had twins in April, are very much in tune with Ms. Linn’s thinking.
“For us it’s less the economy and more about lessening our environmental impact,” said Dr. Cavalleri, who recently received a doctorate in environmental health at Harvard.
The couple took hand-me-downs from relatives, and gleaned gear from a twins support group.
Greg Allen, whose blog, daddytypes.com, monitors the industry, said: “There is a sense that there is just so much stuff for kids already out there that the idea of buying brand-new seems completely unnecessary. Even sexy stuff is eye candy at best, and there is no guarantee your kid will like the expensive Alexander Calder pull toy you bought.
“When you discover that, you focus on what your kid really likes and needs, which is a very small percentage of what’s out there.”