Mark McGregor's wife isn't due until the end of October, but for the past two months, he's been wheeling about his sleek new stroller. Officially, he's taking out his god-daughter, but everywhere he goes, heads turn to check out his wheels.
His stroller, the Origami, has serious curb appeal, and looks like nothing before it. With the push of a button, it unfolds robotically on its own. It charges his smartphone, measures his distance and speed on an LCD screen and guides his way with headlights.
Mr. McGregor knew he had to have the $900 stroller – used by celebrity moms such as Natalie Portman, and hailed by gearheads – when he saw it online and became one of the first people in Canada to own one.
"It's kind of an ego-booster" when people gawk, the 31-year-old Thornhill, Ont., resident admits.
In an era of conspicuous parenting, the Origami is a statement: The trend of increasingly sophisticated, stylish and expensive baby gear is entering a new phase.
The Origami is one of a slew of new products that are upping the ante, redefining not just the infant market, but the act of child-raising itself for modern parents whose demographic reality has shifted significantly from the previous generation.
Consider the new "Foonf" car seat by Toronto-based Clek Inc. It sells for $450 – the most expensive on the market – and imports vehicle safety technology to reduce the force of an impact on children in accidents.
The $350 Summer Infant Peek Plus Internet Monitor System, also new, links a live video feed to a secure website so parents can watch their baby on their smartphones wherever they are – such as out on a rare date.
But do parents need smarter strollers and constant video surveillance? Even upscale boutique owners admit it's too much. "For sure, we're preying on their guilty conscience," said Karen Judd, owner of Toronto's Moms To Be … and More. "The whole industry does it."
First-time parents are older on average than in the past, likelier to live in two-income homes and have fewer children. They have more to spend per child, but also believe they won't be as well off as their parents, so "they're going to give their child every advantage they can," said Ipsos Public Affairs pollster Darrell Bricker. For a group whose defining brands are Apple and Starbucks, style also matters, said Environics Analytics vice-president Michele Sexsmith. "They tend to be drawn toward things that are aesthetically pleasing," she said. "That will extend to all purchases."
They research extensively online and know exactly what they want when they walk into baby boutiques, Ms. Judd said.
Reflecting back at them is a celebrity culture obsessed with the offspring of the rich and famous, a byproduct of the fact more women in the United States are in their prime childbearing years than at any time since baby boomers outgrew the bracket, said Bonnie Fuller, editor-in-chief of HollywoodLife.com. Gossip magazines dedicate pages to stars with their kids and highlight the products they use, driving sales.
As a result, upscale baby products have become aspirational "affordable luxury" items, aimed at the clientele of high-end boutiques that have opened in the past decade. But they are also bought by middle-class parents and sold to some extent at Babies "R" Us and Sears, forcing mass market suppliers such as Montreal-based Dorel Industries to offer more higher-end wares. Sales have been resilient despite sluggish economic times, said Chicago retail consultant Neil Stern.
Every infant category has had a recent makeover. Many strollers, inspired by the $1,000-plus Bugaboo (which led the shift to higher-end products a decade ago) cost $700-plus and adapt to fit two children without sacrificing style or ease of use. Sippy cups come with weighted, bendable straws so tykes don't miss a drop. Bloom's Fresco high chair looks like a funky bar stool. It reclines, swivels, and costs $600. Diaper bags used to be homely $30 satchels; now they are high-fashion $180 handbags from Petunia Pickle Bottom. Leather bibs from Mally Designs of Abbotsford, B.C., retail for $40 – but can be customized for up to $60 extra. "You'd be surprised how many people add those options," Mally co-founder Nicole Garza said.
Nurseries are no longer pink or blue juvenile ghettos but sleek extensions of the home, with muted colours, $1,500 leather gliders and $400 organic cotton crib mattresses. "Parents want something they can look at and feel comfortable with in their homes," said Ying Liu, co-owner of three Fab Baby Gear stores in Ottawa and Toronto. "You don't have to become Disneyland for your child."
Are parents getting better products or being manipulated? The answer is both.
For every Foonf, there is a product like Baby Brezza's $50 kettle that heats water for formula to exactly 36.7C for the baby's comfort. And then there is the mamaRoo, a robotic seat from 4moms, the Pittsburgh-based maker of the Origami. It's not a rocker or swing; rather, it simulates a parent's swaying motions – and sells for $270, compared with a $60 Fisher Price bouncer. It's very popular, but Cristina Lewarne, co-owner of upscale Vancouver boutique Crocodile Baby, refuses to stock it. "It's one more babysitter you don't need," she said.