Sandra Martin bought her first stroller eight years ago, during the dawn of the high-end pram era. She picked a heavy duty one with sturdy wheels, with a price tag close to $500.
"We thought, wow, that's a lot to pay for a stroller," says Ms. Martin, the executive editor of Today's Parent magazine.
Little did she know that within a few years, not only would she be compiling parent surveys showing that $700 strollers are favoured by even the most frugal parents, but that strollers would have roared past the $1,000 mark.
The price leap has come as a result of some significant improvements in function – walking-mad new parents demand designs with sturdier frames, bigger wheels and more storage. But the biggest emphasis is on form. Image-conscious urbanites want new models as stylish as the latest iPad or Passat. So it's no surprise that the latest object of their affection, the Bugaboo Donkey, is breaking new price barriers. Although it hasn't yet reached the Canadian market, the Donkey sells for $1,500 (U.S.) south of the border – and Canadian parents are already clamouring for it. It's the first stroller with a shape-shifting frame that converts on the spot from a single to a double – and accommodates any configuration of two seats, bassinets or car seats side by side. It's also sleek and unfrumpy, which may be the secret to its appeal with new mothers. A blogger at Cool Mom Picks dubbed it a "gorgeous, pricey, joy-inspiring feat of modern engineering."
The style factor in children's products has been growing exponentially – with rugged urban designs appealing equally to men and women. The Netherlands-based Bugaboo is widely credited with opening up the stroller market in the early 2000s and spawning stylish competitors such as the equally cutesie-named UPPAbaby. Since then, parents have become as loyal to stroller brands as they are to car manufacturers, clothing designers and electronics makers. They visit online forums to recommend their favourites, lament the price of out-of-reach brands, and trade tips on how to get their hands on the latest models.
"If you had your babies 20 years ago, you were pushing around a stroller with animal prints on it, wearing big sunglasses and praying that nobody saw you," Toronto children's retailer Karen Judd says. "Now, it's 'Hey, look what I've got. It matches my lifestyle.' "
Until the Donkey came along, the Norwegian Stokke Xplory stroller, introduced three years ago in Canada, was pretty much the most expensive you could buy, at about $1,250 (Canadian), according to Connecticut-based North American spokeswoman Charlotte Addison. The company has seen "double-digit growth" in Canada in the past two years, she says.
"Parents will splurge – they look at it as a necessity, like an automobile."
The rise of the so-called SUV stroller has been accompanied by a chorus of complaints from pedestrians who say the bulkier strollers – especially doubles that hold two kids – take up too much room on the sidewalk, and restaurant and store owners who ban them from their premises.
Nevertheless, parents who love them are more willing than ever to go to new extremes to get their hands on the latest, greatest models.
Toronto mother Kate Dempsey, who is giving birth to her second child in two months, decided she couldn't wait. She took matters into her own hands and had the Donkey stroller shipped from a Neiman Marcus in Troy, Mich., last month.
She was already a fan of another stroller made by Bugaboo, the Chameleon, which she used with her now 15-month-old son. "For me, it didn't make sense to wait," she says, admitting that, including about $350 in customs duties and taxes, she paid close to $2,000. She knows that seems like a lot to spend.
"I know it's very luxurious. I feel grateful to have it, for sure."
Ms. Judd also bought one south of the border to use as a display model on her sales floor at Moms to Be … and More for curious shoppers. Before knowing when exactly it will be for sale and what it will cost, 22 people have signed up on a waiting list, Birkin-bag style.
"Our customers are the ones who go down to the States to pick them up," she says. "A lot of our customers are on an IVF program, which often creates multiples."
Soon after Bugaboo launched in the United States in 2003 with the now bestselling Frog, consumers were calling its customer service lines begging for a double stroller to hit the market, says Kari Boiler, president of Bugaboo Americas.
"We had people calling, saying can't you just glue two together?" Ms. Boiler says. "Then we'd have people calling and saying, 'Hey, I'm thinking of having my second, so when do you think you're going to have the stroller?' "
Yes, stroller availability has now infiltrated family planning. And the more convertible and expandable the new models become, the more gearheads have to debate in online forums dedicated to strollers. Wired Magazine even invoked the Transformers franchise when it ran a recent review of the Donkey titled: Bugaboo Donkey Is The Optimus Prime Of Children's Strollers.
To help customers further justify the purchase, Ms. Boiler says Bugaboo is exploring luggage designs that could make the Donkey frame useful as a shopping cart children after children outgrow it. (Other companies are creating similar nods to longevity. A bassinet stand made by UPPAbaby converts into a laundry hamper stand that, of course, they sell an insert for. And a Stokke high chair and change table morph into a desk set.)
For now, the pent-up demand for the Donkey is also a sign that despite tight times the market remains healthy. Bugaboo's global revenues have grown from €43-million ($54.5-million) in 2005 to €72-million in 2010, with 21 per cent of that coming from North America.
Ms. Martin understands why.
"You go to your mom's group," she says, "and maybe you have your cheapo stroller and you realize not just that it doesn't look like what the other moms' strollers look like, but also, it's not as functional," she says. "You go for a walk afterwards and you see what your stroller isn't doing. When you are ready to get another one, you think, I'm going to spend more money and get the one I saw that could do the corners – and she could lift up the stairs."