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In Hot Pursuit Of Yoga Mama


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Two-year-old Casandra King's bedroom is stocked with products that are very different from those her mother, Julia, had when she was that age. Instead of Johnson & Johnson () Baby Oil and Vaseline (), the Edison (N.J.) toddler gets slathered daily with petroleum-free lotions from California Baby. Her mom pays three times the price of the mass brands. And Casandra's dresser is filled with organic cotton shirts and pajamas from niche marketers such as Hanna Andersson and Mama's Earth, which can cost 50% more than clothes from Sears (), where Julia's mother shopped for four kids 35 years ago.

Julia King, 38, is part of an emerging class of women whom marketers call Yoga Mamas. These middle- and upper-income mothers are more style- and brand-conscious than their parents. No matter their income, they spend like lottery winners on their babies and toddlers. In the process, they're revolutionizing the baby-products market and forcing manufacturers and retailers of all sizes to adjust.

From the start, they are focused on active, fashionable, and fit pregnancies, and then on the fitness and well-being of their offspring. They tend to be more educated and have more disposable income to spend on fewer children than past generations. As a result, the $27 billion infant and preschool products business is growing more than 4% per year, faster than the overall toy, apparel, and furniture industries. "This group is influencing other moms who have money and plenty of moms who don't," says Timothy Dowd, a senior analyst at market research firm Packaged Facts. "Yoga Mama is pumping up sales across the board."

Marketers say the evidence is in the brisk sales of premium-priced products: Burt's Bees Buttermilk lotion is $8.99 and a top seller at drugstore.com; $11.50 buys a 2 oz. jar of popular California Baby Calendula Cream at Whole Foods Market (); Italian leather toddler shoes are $129 at Nordstrom (); Bugaboo strollers Yoga moms love for ergonomic design and brand cachet are $700 and up. And the appeal is well beyond Rodeo Drive and Manhattan's Upper East Side, where baby-bling-buying includes Gund brand diamond and emerald jewelry for newborns.

PICKLE BOTTOMS AND BUGABOOS

Although yoga mamas may draw titters for sneaking kelp into their toddlers' meatballs, marketers aren't laughing at their spending and influence. Many women are starting families later in life, when they have financial footing and established tastes. And there is a greater tendency among new parents to think their toddlers need the best of everything to succeed in life. "These mothers aren't buying baby products so much as extending their lifestyle to their babies," says Linda Murray, editor of www.babycenter.com.

That's why many new baby products are designed more with mom in mind than baby. Kids still gravitate to Winnie the Pooh, but the trendiest diaper bags are made by manufacturers such as Petunia Pickle Bottom and Fleurville and cost $150 and up, eight times the cost of a Pooh bag at Target. The designer bags, in patterns such as houndstooth and red Asian brocade, have appeared conspicuously in ABC's () Desperate Housewives and The Oprah Winfrey Show. And pricey strollers are justified in part because their rugged and lightweight design helps Mom burn calories via power walking, aka "strollercizing."

Bigger spending is fed by an attitudinal change toward motherhood. Superfit mothers-to-be flaunt their bulging bellies in cropped tops and low-rise jeans. "Soccer moms are pass?," says author Katherine Stewart, whose recently published first novel, The Yoga Mamas, follows a group of fashion-obsessed mothers through spas and baby boutiques. "They are no longer content to be lunchbox-packers, and want to make motherhood a personal statement."

Like any fashion-focused industry, the new-baby business requires near-constant reinvention. Fast-growing Tiny Love, an Israeli maker of preschool playthings, launches new versions of its Gymini play mats, which feature dangling toys suspended mobile-like above the infant, flashing lights, and Mozart tunes, almost every 12 months. The latest Gymini Total Playground retails for $70, a 75% jump from the 1993 original. Oded Ben-Ezer, CEO of Tiny Love importer Maya Group Inc., expected higher-end versions to be just 20% of sales. But to his surprise, each pricier Gymini displaces the lower-priced ones. "Mothers are saying, 'I want the best for my baby.' This is a competitive world," he says.

Established industry players are scrambling to adapt. Research by Atlanta-based Carter's Inc., long the leader in baby clothes sold at department stores, showed moms want a more exclusive and convenient boutique shopping experience. So Carter's has been rolling out stores in shopping centers next to retailers like Barnes & Noble () and Bed Bath & Beyond (), where Yoga Mamas hang out. Carter's plans to have 250 such stores open within a few years, up from 30 now.

Even businesses that attract a much broader base of consumers are looking to Yoga Mamas as a source of growth. Booming natural foods retailer Whole Foods Markets is trying to enlarge its take of the family budget by appealing to mothers with more organic baby foods and even children's clothing made from pesticide-free hemp. Stores have held healthy eating seminars for mothers called Whole Baby. And some have added a baby registry. "A lot of women become interested in healthier living when they get pregnant," says company spokeswoman Kate Lowery.

WORD OF MEGAPHONE

Yoga moms' impact goes beyond consumerism. Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean's unsuccessful 2004 Presidential bid, says Yoga Mamas are in many ways a more desirable target for politicians than NASCAR Dads or Soccer Moms because they are so heavily networked -- socially and technologically. When a campaign gets one as an advocate, says Trippi, it's really getting a message to dozens more. "The Yoga mom is the center of the megaphone today."

But Yoga Mamas are not easy to reach through traditional media. Whether working outside the home or not, shuttling their little ones from doctors' appointments to play dates gives them little leisure time. Web sites such as Babycenter.com and parent magazines like Brain, Child have climbing site traffic and circulation. But shopping, e-mail, and chatting online are often done late in the evening. A survey of 1,800 mothers done by babycenter.com on BusinessWeek's behalf found that 40% considered other moms among their best sources of consumer information, well ahead of family and the media. Recognizing that time is of the essence to these shoppers, e-tailer babystyle.com offers a tightly edited product menu of just four or five items per category.

Still, there's a fine line between hyper-conscientious shopping and outright materialism. The babycenter.com survey showed 54% of those with household income between $50,000 and $200,000 said they have been splurging on high-end baby clothing and gear even when bargain brands are also available. Too much of that could backfire on their kids. David Bredehoft, chairman of the department of social and behavioral sciences at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn., has studied adults overindulged as children. Those showered with toys, gear, and clothes later developed low self-esteem that manifested itself in overeating.

"There's a treadmill of dissatisfaction that acquisition doesn't solve," says Juliet B. Schor, a Boston College sociology professor and author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. Consider the Yoga mom who shells out $129 for a pair of shoes for her toddler. A really sound child would have more fun with the box they came in.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, with David Kiley in New York


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