Hot Wheels

How do you get a soccer mom to shell out $749 for a stroller? Design it so it'll grow right along with junior. Dad will think it's cool, too.

Despite appearances, a futuristic new stroller that's making a splash among well-heeled parents didn't fall from outer space — just Scandinavia. Stokke (pronounced Sto-cah), a Norwegian furniture company founded in 1932, has thrown a $749 stroller called the Xplory into a growing market for high-end child gear. It's a sort of rolling version of the company's most famous design, a high chair introduced in 1972 called the KinderZeat, which is a Z-shaped chair made to grow with kids from as young as 18 months to well into their teens. Last fall, the company soft-launched the Xplory in the U.S. market, releasing just 1,000 units to its top-23 independent retailers. To help ensure that the stroller transcended mere faddishness, the company insisted that sales staff receive extensive training on its design and functions. Geir Stokke, president of the company's suburban Atlanta-based U.S. operation and the grandson of its founder, Georg, says the company sold in nine weeks what it had planned to sell over six months. Today, it's ramping up to expand product training to more stores, and it has just begun distribution through BabyStyle.com. Here's Stokke's approach to designing hot wheels.

Get A Fresh Perspective

The most striking thing about the Xplory is its "spinal cord," the central pole that enables Junior to sit at eye level with a parent, lifting up the darling one from the milieu of exhaust pipes and dogs' tails. When it began work on a stroller five years ago, Stokke knew it wanted a different design approach to create a vehicle that would both bring baby closer to mom and dad and be flexible enough to navigate the modern landscape (everything from Starbucks tables to escalators). Stokke turned to an unlikely group: Oslo design firm K8, a boutique shop filled with "boys," none of whom had any experience with children. "We wanted to present something totally new," says Marius Andresen, a partner in K8. The design team took to the streets of Europe's capitals to understand the needs of today's parents. But it also drew inspiration from the firm's past work on everything from patient lifters to golf-bag carts.

Appeal To A New Market

How many self-respecting fathers will get excited about a stroller? Plenty, it turns out, so long as you're talking technical specs and breakthrough engineering. "Strollers are like surrogates of a car," says Greg Allen, whose Daddytypes.com is a popular blog for new fathers. Kurt Ackman, a 31-year-old new dad who works in higher-education sales for Apple Computer in Denver, says he found the Xplory after hours of comparison-shopping online. "My wife didn't want to spend that much," says Ackman, who finally sealed the deal when he packed up the family and took them to a high-end baby store in nearby Boulder for an Xplory test drive. Now that he and his daughter, Chelsea, have their new toy, Ackman says, "Every time we take it out, at least three people ask about it. It almost gets annoying."

Let Function Guide The Form

Look beyond the Xplory's "eye-challenging" design, as Geir Stokke calls it, and you'll discover that the unique form is very much driven by function. Besides providing eye-level seating, the chair can face either forward or backward. That lets parents have face time with baby while walking, then lets them turn the tyke around to face a table at a cafe or restaurant. In addition, the large back wheels of the Xplory fold up in a snap, making that ultimate stroller challenge — stairs, in particular escalators — easily and safely navigable with baby still strapped in. How does the company balance form and function? "If we have to make a choice of one over the other, internally we'll say let's give 51% to design and 49% to function," says Stokke.

Parents Will Pay The Design Premium

To nonparents — actually, even to a lot of parents — $749 seems like a lot to spend to tote a baby around when a sub-$100 stroller works just fine. But there's plenty of demand for intelligent design and quality craftsmanship in kid stuff (think babyGap and Pottery Barn Kids). Stokke admits that the Xplory may be something of a status symbol, but he certainly isn't counting on that to sustain sales for the long term. Burak Sardag, the buyer for Planet Kids, a Manhattan baby store that carries the Xplory, confirms Stokke's view. "People aren't buying this to just keep up with their neighbors," he says. "There's some of that, but I think it's a very small portion of the sales."

Good Design Makes For Good Value

With any product that Stokke makes — beds, high chairs, seating — it tries to incorporate the ability to grow with a child (hence the rear- and front-facing seat in the Xplory, illustrated below, and the expandable KinderZeat), features that make life easier for a parent, and quality and durability that justify the premium price. "There has to be a lot of real value so you can use the product for a long time in many different situations," Geir Stokke says. But there's one element any Stokke product must have above all else: uniqueness. And a lot of people will pay to feel unique.

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