Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Age of Bugaboo

Not long ago, the folks at Bugaboo had a problem.

“...we realized that some of our consumers were not buying their strollers for the right reasons,” Max Barenbrug, the original designer and creator of Bugaboo, said in an interview with the British magazine, Contagious, last year.

You have to give the company credit. It actually bothered them that folks were lining up to spend $900 on their strollers only because they’d seen Madonna with one, or, perhaps more likely, the mom down the street.

So they started a campaign to educate the buyer, on their website and in the stores, with details sometimes missed in the captions of Us Weekly. If you have a few hours, you, too, can watch video of Barenbrug explaining his creations, or click on a breakdown of the chassis and swivel wheels.

Add this to the list of contradictions that define the Bugaboo. It’s such a simple stroller, it takes hours to explain.

The initial wave of hoopla has passed since Bugaboo hit the scene about a decade ago. The babies of the “Sex and the City” generation are now in grade school, and their younger siblings might just as likely be pushed around in a Mountain Buggy or Uppa, or Quinny, or Maclaren, or dare I say, worn in a sling, as driven in a Bugaboo Frog of yesterday.

Still, Bugaboo changed the landscape. It is, as Bryan Pulice, of the Santa Monica store, Traveling Tikes, said, the “grandfather” of the modern stroller. As a parent who came of age in this decade, I love the Bugaboo and I hate it. Usually at the same time. And, I don’t even own one.

Janet McLaughlin, runs Stroller Swap, a group on Yahoo that has about 10,000 members. She’s owned more than 270 strollers and is, in person and online, the Stroller Queen. She says Bugaboo was revolutionary in three ways. It made Americans face their children in strollers, again, the way prams always have; it brought back the bassinet; and it convinced other companies that US parents would spend more than $400 on a stroller.

“They are unquestionably the company that broke the barrier on money—the sky is the limit.”

In redesigning the stroller, the use of it, and the price tag for it, Bugaboo redefined what it took be a modern parent. When something that dynamic hits the scene, it’s hard not to wonder where you belong. Do you get one? Do you loathe the very idea? Do you wish you had one but pretend you don’t? Or, do you try to ignore the whole thing, and hope it’s a fad. Like expensive car seats. Right.

How a person answers these questions is not as trivial as one would wish. I’d like to say it’s trendy to use a nine dollar umbrella stroller from Babies R Us, and that if your diaper bag is the one they gave you in the hospital, you’ll get lots of compliments, but the truth is, you won’t. (At least, I didn't.)You can decide what matters to you—loyal friendships, integrity, goodness, but you can’t decide which stroller says “with it” and which one says “not so much.”

With strollers and the other exterior badges of parenting status, I’ve come to accept that I fall somewhere in the unremarkable middle. I don’t usually care; I’ll show the world my mismatched, not always spotless, less than fashionable cards. But, there are moments—weak ones-- when it bothers me that Bugaboo called my bluff.

There is a huge community of folks who deride the “Bugaboo lifestyle” (just check the query on Yelp, and you’ll hear an earful). And, one of the reasons I started a blog was because I was tired of parenthood being packaged and commoditized, our stories being written by companies that want us to buy something. And, Bugaboo, in some ways, drew a line in the sand—join them, and you’re with the future. Abstain, and you’re with the past. It’s not about the money, although in this case, that’s what it takes. It’s the fact that something came along and asked us to choose. Now, there’s no turning back. Until something newer comes along, redefines the terms, and the game starts once again.

When it was the only game in town, Bugaboo made a sensation with what Stroller Queen Janet McLaughlin says was an ingenious game of supply and demand. Bryan Pulice at Traveling Tikes, the first store in LA to carry the Bugaboo Frog, describes the scene as the company’s cautious under-estimation of how many strollers would sell. But, however it happened, it created a stir.

“We had some issues as they were growing," Pulice told me. "We were back ordered for products....all of a sudden there was a buzz and it was harder to find the product. ‘I’ll buy your floor model’—people were buying our floor model.” Even the special edition with white wheels that cost $2,000 a piece--a man said he wanted three: one for his wife, one for himself, and one for the nanny. Pulice thought he’d sell a few Bugaboo Frogs a week; he sold eight or ten a day.

The craze rose to another level at Stroller Swap. Janet McLaughlin’s friend and co-founder had special ordered an early edition Frog from Europe well before they were sold in the United States. McLaughlin liked that it reminded her of a modern version of a pram--for the British Silver Cross pram, she was prepared to spend well into the thousands. But this oddly shaped stroller seemed expensive to her, and the color—orange--at a time when most strollers were navy, made her think one thing about her enthusiastic friend: “I thought she was daft.”

Still, the Stroller Queen saw Bugaboo take off. The 2002 appearance on “Sex and the City” created what Bugaboo called, “object-lust among forward trend parents.” The following year, the three circle logo arrived. The next, the celebrated cup-holder. This was a must-have, to meet what the company said was, “...a North American love of lattes and sippy cups.” That same year, Gwyneth Paltrow was seen pushing her daughter in a Bugaboo.... and you know the rest.

McLaughlin heard stories of delivery truck drivers stealing strollers off their trucks; friends whose car windows were bashed, not once but twice, because of a Bugaboo in the car. She had a friend who left a Bugaboo Bee on Santa Monica Boulevard for two minutes after a visit to the pediatrician, only to return to find the stroller stolen off the sidewalk. A witness saw a man pull up, jump out of his car ecstatically, toss the Bee into his trunk and speed off. There were scams on Craig’s list in which people asked, “Looking for a new Bugaboo, willing to pay $300,”—code for a person eager to buy one that was hot.

“We broke up a few of those rings.”

Given the craze, it makes sense that the man who spent five years of his life perfecting the design, living on (albeit Dutch) welfare while he did so, would want people to pay a little less attention to the hype and a little more to the functionality of the stroller itself.

But, that is not as simple as it seems.

First, there are those who do not think the stroller is that practical. Designer Barenbrug says, “performance makes lust acceptable.” (This, interestingly, was not John Edwards’ campaign slogan.) Some parents, like Heather Redpath in Cincinnati, Ohio, who readily admits she bought the stroller because Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow had ones, begs to differ with Barenbrug’s motto.

“I look back and think, what was I thinking?”

She got an umbrella stroller to keep in the car because breaking down her Bugaboo Frog became too much of a hassle. Does she love how the Bugaboo handles and the luxury of it? Yes.

But, “Bottom line—I would tell people not to waste their hard earned money.”

McLaughlin, who is also a stroller consultant, says many of her clients are Bugaboo owners looking for something else. It is not for suburbanites, she cautions. And, more important, it’s not the right stroller for every kid. Her older children never liked the position of the Frog. As for the Bee (being replaced this spring with the Bee Plus), the Stroller Queen has been through four.

And, the motivation for educating might not be all about principle. There is the bottom line.

Peter Roberge, the manager of Manhattan’s Albee Baby on the Upper West Side, says Bugaboo is still in the “top of his top ten” in the high end stroller range, but there is competition.

So much so, that for the first time, parents at Santa Monica’s Traveling Tikes now bring in lists of what they want to see. Bugaboo is always on it, but so are the Uppa, Orbit, and Quinny. People want to compare features, learn about the functions and accessories, not just because they want to know what they are getting for their money, but because they have a choice on where to spend it.

But, getting back to its roots, Barenbrug emphasizes that at its heart, the Bugaboo is a mobility device. Back in 2003, the company added walking tours to their website, in a clever collaboration with artists. Even those of us not pushing such snazzy wheels can download these maps. Suggesting that we might go on a daytrip—instead of just errands—is part of the energy of modern parenthood Bugaboo represents that is alluring.

There are two trips for Manhattan, and I took a look at the one for the Upper East Side. It’s not exactly a place known for rugged terrain, sand pits and neglected sidewalks. The famous frog-like suspension might not get to show its stuff, but the rest of the stroller, no doubt, would feel right at home in this urbane, if not typically urban, locale.

I’d love a reader to try this tour and report back. All I can tell you from reviewing the tour on the page is that it starts at Cooper Hewitt, the National Design Museum, cruises to Jackson Hole for burgers, Ciao Bella for gelato, Cozy Cuts for a $30 kid’s hair cut, a now-defunct Dutch inspired boutique, suggests a shopping trip to Jacardi,($90 skirts for girls) or Calypso ($225 tank top for mom), a playground on 76th, tiny boats, carousel, zoo, and ice skating in central park, shopping or a cappuccino at Barney’s or Bergdorf’s, followed by window shopping up Madison Avenue. If a Bugaboo can get a family to accomplish all of these things without a child, or parent, staging a major meltdown, it’s worth its weight (23 lbs) in gold. I’d love to attempt this outing, but to be honest, after this trip, we’d not have much saved for college.

And, yet, there is a yin to this yang.

Bryan Pulice of Traveling Tikes sees a positive side-effect of the Bugaboo and the modern strollers that followed. People in his Santa Monica neighborhood are walking around a lot more than they used to. They push their strollers instead of hopping in cars. He says it’s a bit of the European behavior rubbing off on the purchasers of these European strollers. He now wants to create a walking tour for new moms in his area.

Is the desire to walk a byproduct of the well designed stroller, or its associated prestige?

Once again, Bugaboo never pretended to be without contractions. It is a Dutch stroller made in Taiwan; designed for men, but obsessed over by women; a champion of practicality but priced beyond prudence; crafted for city life, but longed for in suburbia; intended for children, but more so for their parents. And, of course, just look at the name of one of the Bugaboo’s most popular strollers: the every changing, Cameleon.

It’s really me, and perhaps a few like me, who wonder what our identity is in this Bugaboo age of parenting. All I can say is, I am glad my kids are getting older and strollers will soon be a thing of the past.

What’s next?

I contacted Bugaboo for this post, and I asked this very question. What is next? Barenbrug implied in his interview with Contagious Magazine that something new is in the works. The Bee Plus will be ready next month, but are they moving beyond the stroller?

“We are working on a new mobility concept as we speak. Our new concept will be aimed at innovative solutions in mobility, problem solving, intuitive functionality and excitement.”

It might take me another ten years to figure out what that means.

Meanwhile, I suppose I can take comfort in knowing that whatever it is, I’ll probably still find myself in the unremarkable middle.


Anonymous said...

A new "mobility concept"? What the what??? (As I've taught my 3 1/2 year old granddaughter to say.)
I had a pram, bought for approx $25 at a thrift shop for my first two kids. It was used both as a "stroller" and as a bassinet and why oh why didn't I see the handwriting on the wall?? I sold it in winter 1987 and promptly got pregnant. Let his be a lesson to you all.

Houston! said...

There was a time when we owned 7 different strollers, and not one of them was a Bugaboo, I'm proud to say. Several of them did cost $9.99 at Toys R Us. Our favorite was one we called "the train" which was a double stroller/front seat with back seat right behind. We got that one for $20 at a yard sale. But, what's even better is that now our kids can WALK ON THEIR OWN!

Alyson said...

I don't really understand the allure of the Bugaboo. I blame it on living in LA, but it just seems weird. And expensive. And did I mention weird?

MollyinMinn said...

I never understood the allure either. But then again I have always been firming in the "just get a functional" stroller that works well and your kid likes...because they are eventually going to walk.

bonnie said...

I lived in the Upper East side for the first two years of my daughter's life and now live in a very walkable neighborhood in Houston(yes there is such a thing). I did indeed buy a Bugaboo Chameleon and I have to say it was worth it. I have used that stroller almost every day for the past four years(although my oldest didn't like it much until she was around 6 months old so we used several carriers as well). We didn't have a car in NYC and the rough streets and variable weather(took it out in rain, sleet and snow)would have probably wrecked less well made strollers. We now use it with my 8 month old in Houston and like I said we walk(school, library, grocery stores, park) way more than we drive. I think it all depends on your lifestyle.