The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
It was 2005, the height of the Bugaboo stroller craze. Bob Monahan was an experienced product developer who’d made cars at Ford and shoes at Reebok, and he and his wife were about to have their second kid. When Monahan took a look at the stroller market, he saw a big hole in it. At the bottom were the affordable, no-frills strollers. They were a little clunky and not so attractive to look at. They were often covered in tacky prints, teddy bears or rainbows. At the top of the market were the European imports like Maclaren and Bugaboo. These were stylish and functional but superexpensive, and because they were foreign, it wasn’t always easy for American buyers to get repairs or replacement parts. Monahan sensed there was a place for a domestic brand that could offer what he thought of as affordable luxury. “It was just a price point somewhere between $200 and $600, there was a huge opening,” Monahan says. “And also an opening for a high-end brand with more American sensibilities and good customer service.”
The other insight Monahan had was that, unlike with a lot of other baby products, the decision about which stroller to buy was a discussion where a lot of dads like him got deeply involved, doing research and comparing specs like they were buying a car. So Monahan tried to cater to that demographic with elements that he found appealing: “Cool colors, anodized aluminum, welded aluminum, lightweight instead of steel, the modularity where you snap parts in and snap parts off, being able to go over rougher terrain with it, the suspensions. I mean, just almost any functionality that you’d see in automotive and then translating that into a stroller, that’s what got exciting for me.”
Monahan quit his job in 2005. The company he started, UPPAbaby, sold its first stroller in 2006. It slowly gathered steam, and his wife, Lauren, got involved, taking a major role. And then came a global economic collapse that Monahan worried might imperil the company. “When the recession hit, we were very nervous,” he says. “We were just getting going.”
As it turned out, the economic contraction hit Monahan’s upmarket competitors, with their four-figure prices, harder than his new midtier business. “I think it actually worked in our favor because for a while there, the era of conspicuous consumption was not cool,” he says. “You had people that had plenty of money but didn’t want to spend it all, but you had also people that could still reach for it even during a recession. So we still grew, even 2007, 2008.”
Bugaboo’s ultraluxury image seemed out of step with the times. Meanwhile, Maclaren was forced to recall a million strollers in 2009 when 12 children lost fingers because of a faulty hinge design. When the dust settled, there was a new “it” stroller. UPPAbaby, with its slightly more reasonable pricing and safer hinges, emerged on top, and it stayed there.
UPPAbabys aren’t mere products; they’re lifestyle signifiers. Bourgeois parents pushing them down yuppified city streets are saying something about themselves and to one another, not unlike a teen with a muscle car revving down a small-town boulevard. On CNBC in 2017, UPPAbaby was described as “a high-end stroller and car seat company that if you’re not familiar with, just go to the Upper West Side and you’ll see them all over the place.”
In 2017, my wife and I were expecting our first kid, and I can attest that when we started tuning in to which stroller brands people were using, we saw UPPAbabys everywhere in our Brooklyn neighborhood—which, I have to admit, is what convinced us to buy one. The fact that so many other people had UPPAbabys made them feel like a safe choice, and when you’re shopping for baby stuff, safe is an extremely appealing quality. There’s not much temptation to roll the dice on some weird stroller brand you’ve never heard of. All of which means that stroller success is to some degree self-perpetuating. A company’s strollers serve as mobile billboards for its brand.
At the same time, though, there are some unique challenges when it comes to marketing strollers. Maybe the biggest is that the customer base turns over completely every few years. Think about the apparel industry. People are in the market for shirts and pants their whole lives. If you’re selling clothes and you win a new customer, that customer might keep buying your products for decades. Strollers aren’t like that. Stroller buyers have spent their entire lives paying no attention at all to strollers. They can’t even name a stroller brand. And then, when they’re expecting their first kid, they suddenly tune in and start paying a ton of attention—and then they stop paying attention around the time their youngest kid turns 4, and they never think about strollers again. If you’re a stroller company, you have a brief window to grab people’s trust, and then those people buy one stroller, two at most, and they’re done, and you need to grab the next generation’s trust all over again. UPPAbaby has successfully done this for more than a decade now, but can it stay the “it” stroller forever?
Bob Monahan thought UPPAbaby could outdo Bugaboo in customer service, partly by just being an American company servicing American customers instead of a Dutch company trying to do it from overseas. But Monahan also worked to establish a solid customer service team. According to Consumer Reports, UPPAbaby is very responsive to questions and problems. Remember, though, when you buy an UPPAbaby at a retail shop, you’re not dealing with an UPPAbaby employee. You’re dealing with someone who works at the shop. Customers with questions or problems might direct them to the retailer, which means UPPAbaby might never hear that feedback. The customer’s contact information might go to the retailer too, instead of to UPPAbaby.
If you’re trying to form a close relationship with your customer, those things get in the way. When I asked Monahan if UPPAbaby ever considered a direct-to-consumer model, ever thought about selling from its own website, he said it’s not something they’re considering in the near term. Part of why he’s reluctant to change is he feels he owes something to those specialty baby shops that took a chance on UPPAbaby early on and still believe in it. “The retailers helped us launch the business, they helped us build the business,” he says. “They continue to support us and promote us and have the product out, and we continue to be successful that way. So we’re not really in any mood to change at this point.”
The advantage of retail shops is people can put their hands on the stroller, see it up close instead of just looking at it on the web. But in the midst of a pandemic, that advantage is severely muted. And Monahan says that’s opened his eyes to some of the merits of selling direct: “Times change. It’s 15 years after we started, and with COVID, people buy online, people shop online, there’s word-of-mouth, people buy brands, so it’s always something we’ve got to watch. We definitely have our eye on it.”