The Miami Herald

Miami Herald, The (FL)

September 22, 1985

LIKE BMWS FOR BABIES

Author: KEVIN BJERREGAARD Herald Writer

Edition: FINAL
Section: LIVING TODAY
Page: 1G

Estimated printed pages: 4

Article Text:

Jorg Rufin sells strollers for a living. But with slicked- down hair, a gold chain around his neck and his shoe tapping the cool tile at La Canastilla Cubana children's store, Rufin looks more like a car dealer idling between sales on a busy afternoon. "Listen to me," Rufin rattles, taking you into his confidence. "We've got the Italian strollers -- Peregos and Biemmes. And we've got the American strollers -- Strolee, Hedstrom, Gerry. Good strollers. All of them." Rufin gestures to La Canastilla's giant stroller lot crowded with more than 100 models.

"But," Rufin says, holding up one finger. "This stroller is called an Aprica." Rufin points to a miniature blue hammock on four sets of double wheels. "Aprica," Rufin repeats, as if the word is music to a stroller salesman's ears. "We order 75 to 100 Apricas every two to three weeks and they sell out. Women ask for Apricas, and they don't even know what they are. Aprica. When I look at that door," Rufin looks at the front door of his store in Hialeah, "and I see someone walk in fast -- like she's got money in her pocket and knows what she wants -- I think, 'I'm going to sell an Aprica.' "

In the $14-billion-a-year children's retail market, the Aprica stroller is one of the fastest-moving products. In 1984, almost one of three dollars spent on strollers in the United States (an $80-million market) went to Aprica Kassai Inc., the Japanese manufacturer of the stroller. The year before, only one out of five U.S. stroller dollars went to Kassai. A quick glance around South Florida malls and up-scale grocery stores (or the trunks of the BMWs in the parking lots) confirms the statistics -- Aprica stands out as the yuppie infant's choice for fashionable, foldable transportation.

The word Aprica means "open to the sun," according to Kassai. Models cost $100 to $250 and come in a barrage of colors. Options include convertible hoods, fully reclining seats, reversible handlebars and adjustable footrests. Kassai hired Isabella Hebey, interior designer of the Concorde, to design the Aprica Concor-Mini. At the Bal Harbour Shops, Linda Mazzei of Pembroke Pines wheels her 4-week-old son, Paul Vincent, toward Saks Fifth Avenue in a gray Aprica. "The first time I saw an Aprica was at Macy's. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had these neat blue strollers. I asked my mother, 'Mother, what are they doing, renting those strollers out at the door?' "

Mazzei demonstrates Aprica's versatile reversible handlebar, spinning Paul Vincent around. "And you'll notice that when Paul Vincent spits up, I can just switch the handle like this and I don't have to look at him in the face." Paul Vincent, snoozing on his belly, throws a glance over his shoulder before falling back to sleep. "Just kidding," Mazzei says, mostly to her son. "Actually, these Apricas are the Mercedes of the stroller world." Stroller salesman Rufin puts it another way: "This Aprica is your basic super-lightweight, aluminium and canvas, collapsible, Japanese stroller with comfort plus."

Despite Aprica's image as a brand new product, Kenzo Kassai began building strollers in 1947 in Japan. But they didn't really catch on until 1970 (the Japanese were reluctant to abandon their backpack baby carriers). Kassai now controls almost two of three yen spent on strollers in Japan. In 1981, the first Apricas were shipped to North America. But sales didn't take off until April 1982, when Merchants Corporation of America, headquartered in Buena Park, Calif., purchased the stroller's distribution rights.

Doug Dolansky, vice president of Merchants, which distributes sporting goods, also compares Aprica to the BMW. "A couple of years ago, BMW sales went straight up. People called it a fad. But BMW is not only fashionable; it's also a quality product. That's why BMW will keep selling. That's Aprica's style, too. Aprica is not just some passing trend." Dolansky admits Merchants conducted very little research into the stroller market before buying Aprica's distribution rights. According to Paul Smith, who founded Strolee in 1953 and is an old-timer in the industry, fads such as Aprica have dominated the stroller market through the years.

In 1940, Arnold Peterson invented the original folding stroller, called the Folda Rola. As the 1950s baby boom mounted, Smith and his associates decided the public was ready for a revolution in strollers -- the fully reclining stroller. "Also, we changed the colors of the fabrics," Smith recalls from the Los Angeles headquarters of Strolee. "We brought out the Strolee in green and polka-dot designs -- real fashionable stuff at the time. We sold the top Strolee for $20 -- a lot of money in those days."

By the middle of the 1950s, Strolee was the Aprica of the first baby boom. "You mean Aprica is the Strolee of the 1980s," Smith corrects. Strolee dominated the stroller industry through the 1960s, says Smith. But in the early '70s, Maclaren of England shook the stroller world with the invention of the umbrella stroller. It collapsed like an accordion, folded up smaller than traditional strollers. Within months, they were the new fad.

Not for long. During the mid-1970s, the back-to-nature movement took hold. Soon, fashionable new mothers carried their kids in modified backpacks. Finally, in the late 1970s, the Italian Peregos became the rage. Aprica, modeled after the Italian designs, followed in the 1980s. "I give those Apricas credit," Smith says. "They're the new status symbols in strollers. But in my opinion, I don't think Apricas are comfortable for the babies. Mothers should consider that, too, when they buy a stroller."

Despite some parents' complaints that the strollers are difficult to tip up and over a curb and that the wheels sometimes wobble like out-of-sync grocery carts, Apricas continue to sell. Back at the Bal Harbour Shops, Shawn Klein pulls her son Jonathan's Aprica up to the curb at a drinking fountain. Klein disagrees with Smith. "The Aprica is not just a status symbol. It's very versatile. It folds up. It's aluminium. It looks comfortable for the kids."

Margot Rivera, visiting from Venezuela, parades her daughter in a generic, non-Aprica stroller. "Her name is Margaux, like in Margaux Hemingway," Rivera says and apologizes for leaving her Aprica at home. "In fact, I was the first to have an Aprica in Venezuela. When my friends saw it, they all insisted on traveling to Miami to purchase one." Daniel Folgar, also visiting from Venezuela, steers Daniel Jr. through the mall in an Aprica. "Aprica? What does it mean? It's just like all those fashionable clothes with the funny names. People get those funny names in their heads, and they have to have them. When my son gets old enough to talk, the first question I should ask him is, 'Hey, how do you like that stroller, kid? Was it worth the money?' "

Caption:
photo: Aprica BABY STROLLER, Jorg Rufin and BABY STROLLER

Copyright (c) 1985 The Miami Herald
Record Number: 8503170238