Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Status Shopping for Babies

It's no secret that we live in a society obsessed by status consciousness and that the coveted rank of high status is conferred by ownership of "the right" brand name stuff, preferably plenty of it. It's also no secret that in Los Angeles that obsession has reached critical mass.

So what happens when status conscious Angelenos become parents? Well, naturally they absolutely must have "the right" stuff for their little ones. That means nothing as common as mass-marketed clothing and toys is appropriate. No, for them shopping for only the specialty and boutique labels will do.

Alan Fields, who co-wrote Baby Bargains, a popular shopping guide for parents, determined that it costs $6,655 at retail prices to buy all the stuff a child "needs," even before baby's first birthday rolls around. Fields said, "Twenty years ago, no one really cared what brand your stroller was. Today, it's a status symbol."

But here in the sun-drenched home base of diamond-encrusted cell phones, the desire for the "right" stuff is about the only thing that dependably trickles down to the folks with less robust bank accounts than the average media mogul. So what's a mom to do if she'd like to save a few bucks on her little darling's pricey accoutrements? If she's a clever former marketing exec, she'll come up with a creative plan to find lightly used ones. And that's what Valley-mom Kristin Nelson did when she set up her first Baby Bazaar.

In a recent LA Times article, reporter Jennifer Oldham states that in only four years Nelson's sale "has grown from three dozen friends and neighbors selling used children's things in Nelson's Sherman Oaks driveway to a twice-yearly mega-event that fills a 6,000-square-foot hall. Come fall, she'll be moving to a 10,000-square-foot space with room for 375 sellers."

Now dubbed the LA Kids Consignment Sale, the event offers some 25,000 items for sale, making it "the largest such event in the Western United States and one of hundreds that have sprung up nationwide in the last five years to help parents divest themselves of the expensive doodads and knickknacks that seem to be absolutely indispensable to raising a child in the 21st century."

Originally Nelson thought she'd be selling to low income parents looking for bargains. Instead, she found "stay-at-home mothers in $165 jeans frantically searching crowded racks elbow-to-elbow with screenwriters and nannies. Some came from 30 miles away or farther."

If you'd like a glimpse of what the sale is like, take a look at this two-minute LA Kids Consignment Sale video produced for the LA Times.

At least this giant consignment sale is a very fine example of recycling. But shouldn't we also be considering the sheer quantity of stuff that's being sold? Was all of it necessary to raise a happy newborn for the following 365 days?

I wonder how much it really costs to raise a healthy, happy baby, especially if you don't happen to have a spare $6,655 to spend in that first year. I'm not a parent, so I can't speak from experience; please chime in with your observations if you do have kids. And meanwhile, let's get some perspective.

In 1999 in Los Angeles, 181,473 children under age five lived below the poverty line. That's almost 25 percent of all the kids in that age group in LA County. Considering our current economic malaise, it's unlikely that things have improved in the last decade.

In 2002, a family of four was considered below the poverty line if their income was less than $18,100. It's doubtful that any of these families could have even imagined spending over one-third of their total household income on stuff for a new baby.

As I said, I don't have kids, but the last time I encountered a child under the age of one, I can absolutely guarantee that he didn't care about the name on the label of his jammies.

Unfortunately, his parents did.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


Anonymous said...

My "babies" are young adults in their mid-twenties now, but even when they were born I was amazed at the stuff I didn't need.

The biggest thing was disposable diapers and baby wipes. I bought a washer and dryer (and four dozen cloth diapers, two dozen cotton wash cloths, and a diaper pail) with the money I would have spent on disposable diapers for one child for two years. I had my second child when the first was 12 months old, so I washed diapers every day for the next two years.

I never had a changing table; they are unnecessary and even dangerous. Babies roll off them, and cheap ones can collapse. I used a flannel/rubber sheet spread out on the carpeted bedroom floor to change them.

Baby bath tubs are unnecessary; the kitchen sink is the perfect height for bathing a baby without bending over in away that hurts your back. Put a handtowel on the bottom of the sink to keep the baby from slipping.

Regular cribs are expensive, and since kids can climb out of them long before they are too big to sleep in them, why bother? I had porta-cribs for my kids when they were tiny, and once they were trying to climb out, I put their mattresses on the floor.

One thing I would have happily spent more on is a sturdy stroller. With two babies and no car, I wore out the axles of three double strollers. Today I see some VERY expensive strollers advertised; I hope they are built for real use and not just expensive because they have trendy names attached to them.

Friends, neighbors, and people I hardly knew constantly offered me used but still good clothing for my babies. I never said no, and passed stuff on as soon as my kids outgrew it. Later, I found a little store that bought and re-sold used children's clothing, and we went there often and the kids picked out their own clothes.

Lastly, I didn't go overboard on toys. My kids had blocks, a few dolls and stuffed toys, art supplies, board games, and books. OK, I went overboard on books, especially as they got older. But we regularly gave away toys and books they had outgrown, and some were bought used at yardsales in the first place.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thank you for sharing your parenting experiences! It sounds like you found very workable solutions for all the basic needs.

I've noticed several stores in the neighborhood that specialize in used clothing and other items for children. I wouldn't be surprised if there's been increased demand for those kinds of retail outlets over the years since your children were born.

I totally support "going overboard" on books and I think it's great that you did such a fine job of passing along what you had purchased as the kids grew up.

And I bet your babies never missed being surrounded by designer labels!