Wall Street Journal

Dad’s New Wheels Are on the Stroller
Pricey Baby Buggies Lure Men With Car-Like Features; A ‘Hummer’ Built for Kids
Wall Street Journal
February 24, 2005

The Bob Trailer Sport Utility Ironman isn’t an SUV. For starters, it seats only one person, usually someone under 35 pounds.

The Ironman is a stroller — not that one could really tell from its marketing material, which touts its “elastometer shock absorbers” and “plush suspension for on-road comfort and performance.” It’s named for the Ironman Triathlon, the famously grueling sporting event, which licensed the baby buggy as its first official stroller. The manufacturer, BOB Trailers Inc., says it has been a big draw among men.

Anything involving wheels is bound eventually to attract the attention of the male of the species. Now, that most rudimentary — even feminine — of vehicles, the baby stroller, is beginning to capture the imagination of men in a big way. A generation of strollers with sophisticated engineering, sleek designs and un-nursery-like colors (from black to “racing yellow”) has emerged, allowing dads to compare notes about wheel suspension and off-road handling with a reverence once reserved for expensive sports cars.

“I’ve actually stopped people on the street to ask if they have a 12- or 16-inch wheel,” says Jeff Wechselblatt, a 33-year-old New York lawyer. His own child rides in a Pliko P3, produced by venerable Italian stroller-maker Peg Perego. But he covets the new models of jogging strollers. “I don’t jog,” he says, “but they just look so great.”

Mr. Wechselblatt confesses that he has run his hands “surreptitiously over the fine construction” of the neighbors’ Bugaboo Frog, which is often called “the Hummer of strollers” because of its shape and big wheels. Some days, after stealing peeks at strollers on the Web, he comes home and looks at his Peg Perego “with disdain and I wonder, how can I put my child in this?” he says.

Justin Curtis, 33, who owns an interactive design company in Sausalito, Calif., ran into Bugaboo-pushing guys at a coffee shop during his wife’s pregnancy, and chose a black one after consulting with them. “I’d say, ‘Do you like this stroller?’ their faces would brighten up,” he says. “It’s like when we were younger and talked about our mountain bikes.”

Such passion is encouraging makers of all types of baby gear to go after the hip-Daddy market. JJ Cole makes a khaki “Adventure” baby carrier. Two months ago, Due Maternity, a retailer with boutiques in Atlanta and Santa Barbara, Calif., started a “Dads” section on its Web site and traffic soared. Offerings include “bottle shorts,” with multiple pockets to hold baby bottles, pacifiers and other gear. (These were originally manufactured as fishing shorts, with pockets for tackle and beer cans.) Diaperdude.com sells messenger-style diaper bags in camouflage or black with electric-guitar and dragon motifs.

But nothing has changed character more than strollers. “All the new strollers have struts and shocks and big wheels,” observes Stuart Goffman, chief executive of Baby Universe Inc., one of the largest Web retailers of baby paraphernalia. At first glance, some of them look more like mountain bikes than strollers, and indeed, they are engineered to navigate all types of terrain, from beaches to city steps.

Some have special wheels that make turning (always a pain with a stroller) easier. One, the Stokke Xplory, a Norwegian model with a higher than average seat — to give the child more eye contact and stimulation — has an adjustable handle-bar, the better for tall guys. (Russell Crowe owns a Stokke.) Stokke introduced the Xplory in the U.S. last fall by offering “test strolls” in a few major cities. Potential customers could put their baby in the stroller and take it out on the sidewalk for a few hours.

With the U.S. birth rate generally flat, growth in the stroller industry is being largely driven by the proliferation of new high-end models. You can buy a stroller for as little as $10, but many of the eye-grabbing models retail for over $300 — or, like the Stokke and Bugaboo, more than $700. Now, some middle-market stroller makers are trying to emulate the more expensive models. Evenflo, one of the three big mass producers, recently introduced the Ellipsa, a stroller with more rugged wheels and sleeker lines than its previous models. In the end, though, despite the aesthetics and cool features of the new high-end models, a number of parents find that an inexpensive umbrella stroller can be easier to fold and haul around.

The Bugaboo, made by a small Dutch company, may be the original macho stroller. Its flagship model, the Frog, came to the U.S. in 2003 and took the high-end market by storm. Retailing at $729, it costs more than twice as much as some of the most popular strollers on the market. But within months, sidewalks in trendy neighborhoods were jammed with Bugaboos.

“It’s so cool-looking,” says Oren Gradus, a professional opera singer who is expecting his first child in March and has a new Bugaboo Frog (special ordered in aubergine) waiting. To top it off, he says with obvious delight: “It comes with a maintenance kit!”

Some Daddy bloggers are already wringing their hands over word that Bugaboo plans to discontinue the Frog to make room for new models. Kari Boiler, director of marketing for Bugaboo North America, says the company plans to roll out two new models this year, probably in the 4th quarter, one more expensive than the current Frog, the other a little less. “Our aim is to eventually phase out the Frog, but this is still in the planning stages,” she says.

To some men, the Frog was already becoming a little too bourgeois and predictable anyway — kind of like a red Porsche. New father Scott Cohen, 36, has discovered a stroller that seems to impress people in his Manhattan neighborhood even more: the Zapp, which folds down to almost nothing. “We can’t make it more than a block” without people stopping to ask about it, he says.

Lending it even more cachet, the Zapp isn’t available in the U.S. But you can order it from Quinny, the Dutch maker, at www.babycare.nl.

Mr. Cohen and his wife are now planning to sell their unused Bugaboo on eBay.