And baby makes spree

Times Staff Writer

Michelle Rascon fervently wanted to free herself from all that plastic.

So it was time for the multicolored ExerSaucer to clutter some other parents' floor. So too the bouncy seat and the play mat that her two children don't need anymore.

That's how she came to be parked outside a Van Nuys warehouse on a muggy spring morning, unloading her children's leftovers. But the large purple tulip atop the double-deck ExerSaucer had wedged itself between the door frame and the back seat, and she had to tug mightily to remove it from her gray Nissan Sentra -- and her life.

Across the street at Babies 'R Us, the 23-pound saucer -- with a hammock-like seat where parents can plop Junior to play with various gizmos while they get a cup of coffee -- retails for $119.95. Rascon, a part-time legal secretary, was hoping that it would fetch $55 at a biannual kids' used-clothing and equipment sale that's half coffee klatch and half bargain hunter's delight.

"My husband's, like, 'Just get rid of it already,' " said Rascon, 32, describing the major spring cleaning that preceded her trip to the LA Kids Consignment Sale.

The Los Angeles mother was one of 275 people who hauled boxes full of used toy trucks, dolls, clothes, breast pumps, games, highchairs, cribs and other items to the warehouse.

The 25,000 items offered for sale make 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.

And there are plenty of buyers, eager to acquire the castoffs at a fraction of their original price.

In just the first year of a child's life, it costs $6,655 to outfit him and his room with brand-name products purchased at retail prices, according to a survey of 1,000 parents conducted by Denise and Alan Fields, who co-wrote "Baby Bargains," a shopping guide now in its seventh edition. Four years ago, the prices began to irritate Kristin Nelson, a stay-at-home mother of two who couldn't find an affordable ExerSaucer for her 5-month-old son. Scouring garage sales with an infant in tow was out. So was dealing with strangers on the Internet. So the former marketing executive started her own baby bazaar.

Since then, the 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.

Nelson wouldn't discuss the profits from her recent four-day sale but said her earnings have gone from "manicure money to getting-closer-to-vacation money."

Fueling the boom in baby gear resales is a more-than-doubling of annual U.S. retail sales, from $4 billion in 1995 to $8.9 billion in 2006, according to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn. This doesn't include infant and children's clothes, which topped $17 billion in sales in 2005.

"Babies haven't changed at all. They are the same as they were in 1978, but what we know about them has changed dramatically -- there's so much more research about how they develop," Alan Fields said.

This has led to an explosion in the number and types of baby products and a deepening desire by parents, many of them older, to make sure their child gets "the best." As a result, brand names such as Maclaren, Peg Perego and Petunia Pickle Bottom now command three-digit retail prices for strollers, highchairs -- even diaper bags.

"Twenty years ago, no one really cared what brand your stroller was," Fields said. "Today, it's a status symbol."

This is particularly true in style-conscious Los Angeles. Just as cruisers show off their wheels along the Sunset Strip on Saturday nights, parents promenade along Ventura Boulevard with Junior reclining in a $959 Bugaboo stroller. That price makes used strollers a particularly popular item at children's sales nationwide, as are clothes with trendy labels, which sell for half to two-thirds off retail.

"My parents shopped at Kmart or Sears or Penney's for me, but now people want Gap or Gymboree, or boutique brands like Oilily and Hanna Andersson," said Linda Darden. She runs a sale in Nashville, as well as, a website that lists similar events. "We want to be able to give our kids the things we want, the things we feel like we deserve, without having to get a second mortgage."

Since Darden's site went online in 2005, the number of listed sales has jumped from 600 to 1,000.

To participate in Nelson's sales, sellers register at her website ( and use an online program to get their stuff ready. They enter each item on the computer and give it a price. Next, they print out tags and attach them to the items. Then they're assigned a time to drop off the goods, which are inspected for stains, holes or other defects. Sale owners are picky about which items they accept, both to ensure their sales' reputation for quality and to help overcome the stigma often attached to large sales of used items.

"Some people might think it's like a big garage sale," said John Wasson, who runs a sale in Fort Smith, Ark., with his family, and who developed the software used by many event owners, including Nelson. "It's really more like a retail store. It's just that you do it twice a year."

On a recent Tuesday morning in Van Nuys, several days before the sale, volunteers hung miniature dresses, shirts and shorts and covered tables with everything from Elmo dolls and Caterpillar bulldozers to boxes of children's dishes, bottles, books and shoes.

Nearby, an entire room was bursting with stacks of equipment -- including bouncy seats and ExerSaucers (including Rascon's).

Two days later, shoppers swarmed through the doors and hauled items to the check-out area. Each seller gets 65% of the total, and Nelson keeps the rest for expenses and her profit. Sellers can either reclaim items that don't sell, let them go for half price on the last day of the sale or donate them to charity.

Consignors who volunteer to work at the sale can shop the pre-sale (and take home more of their proceeds), which begins a day earlier than the public event.

Nelson also invites pregnant women to arrive early so volunteers can coach them on what they need.

"For a lot of moms, these are convenience things that make your life better, but they couldn't afford them if they didn't come here," said Dawn Ebert-Byrnes, a West Hollywood stay-at-home mom who acts as the sale's floor manager -- one of a 20-person committee that helps Nelson stage each sale.

"The place has become a real community. It's not just about stuff -- although it's absurd to pay retail."

Sale owners across the country say they're always surprised by who typically sells -- and shops -- at their wildly popular bazaars.

"When I started, I assumed my upper-middle-class moms would be my sellers and I would have to market to lower-income moms. I had my fliers translated into Spanish," said Laurie Owens, who runs a sale in Flemington, N.J. "I found that really wasn't the case at all."

Nelson's recent sale also represented the melting pot that is Los Angeles, with 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.

Most shoppers were also sellers. Burbank mom Lisa Manocchia brought seven boxes brimming with about 180 items -- including Thomas the Tank Engine bedding, a Harry Potter game, dishes, clothes and a Spider-Man backpack -- which she expected would fetch about $400.

She planned to turn around and spend just as much, outfitting her 4-year-old son with new-to-him things for summer.

"He accumulates a lot of stuff," said Manocchia, who works in the corporate office of Louise's Trattoria.

"If he hasn't played with it for six or seven months, I bring it here."


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