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Woman pushing a stroller Photo: Adam Katz Sinding/Trunk Archive

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The Baby Gear Black Market

Swap groups and resale communities have cornered the customers baby brands want.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

“If baby stuff manufacturers stopped making everything right now, we’d all be fine for 10 years,” quipped my sister-in-law Nedra as she packed up a co-sleeper, three carriers, and a gigantic pile of onesies to hand down to us from her own kids. My partner and I were preparing to welcome our first baby. Her husband, my brother-in-law David, emailed us a list of brands and items that they’d found particularly useful, commenting, “You’ll figure out what works. Don’t bother to buy a lot — people will give it to you.”

So we didn’t. And they did.

Seven months into parenthood, most baby stuff comes to us used. We pass it along as fast as possible, given how fast the baby grows and how small our apartment is. At this point, we — like most families we know — have established multiple trade pipelines: cousins, friends, and the local parents’ listserv, where we can find stuff for free or at a fraction of its cost. A $500 crib for $40? The baby is sleeping in it right now.

Baby care is an enormous retail market, expected to reach $66.8 billion in 2017, according to Statista. And retail is expensive. If you had the means and wanted to buy all new top-of-the-line stuff, you could spend thousands and thousands of dollars. Picture that $500 crib with a $300 organic mattress, plus a $400 changing table, a $500 car seat, a $1,240 stroller; picture $160 to $185 per month diaper service or $50 to $100 per month disposables; picture all those onesies... picture your bank account evaporating before your eyes.

Enter the secondary, informal, DIY, not-for-any-real-kind-of-profit markets. Peer-to-peer and community-wide swaps, hand-me-downs, second-hands for pocket cash. The speed, breadth, depth, and volume of these markets — all based on intense necessity — are impressive.

Photo: Melissa Ross/Getty Images

Anne, a Queens mom of three — now ages 18, 15, and 10 — relied on friends-and-family swapping for years. “It definitely saves you a lot of money,” she says, estimating that when her kids were younger, she and her husband bought about 50 percent of their kids’ stuff and received about 30 percent from family, 20 percent from coworkers. When her children were small, she kept items to pass from one to the other; she saved their traditional Indian clothes to pass along to her niece. Eventually her daughters developed very different styles — “My older daughter is very fashionista... my younger one is all about the comfort” — and she realized she couldn’t accept many hand-me-downs anymore. So she passed stuff along to the family, friends, and church mates they were already socializing with, occasionally donating to nonprofits as well.

The kids weren’t always cool with circulating clothes so close to home: Anne recalls one awkward moment when a friend’s daughter recognized her former outfit on Anne’s daughter, none too pleased to see it on someone else. Thomas herself had had a similar incident in her own childhood when she unhappily recognized a former dress of hers on her cousin. “I started laughing! It's the purple dress all over again!” she says.

Tara, Manhattan mom of a 2-year-old, estimates that she and her boyfriend buy about 40 percent of their daughter’s clothes new, and receive about 60 percent as swaps or hand-me-downs from close friends. She mainly swaps with her daughter’s babysitter, someone she counts on like family. Tara’s daughter is about 6 months younger than her babysitter’s son, and they trade unisex items like shoes, jeans, and undergarments. “She doesn't purchase clothes for her son; her sister-in-law purchases them, and sometimes doesn't get the right size. That's how she ends up giving them to me,” is how Tara describes their trades. Though she’s younger, Tara’s daughter is taller than her babysitter’s son, which is why Tara passes those clothes back to the babysitter, trading items whenever there’s something to trade.

Since pregnancy, Hima, another Manhattan mom of a 2-year-old, and her husband have mainly relied on two easy hand-me-down pipelines: a close friend and a “very organized” cousin. Hima describes her baby prep attitude as “Give me gently used, give me more than gently used, I don't care, I'll take it.” Fast-forward a couple years, and “Now I have seven crates of stuff, and I have to figure out what to do next.” She would prefer to give it away for free — “I think it's the best thing to do” — and plans on asking another cousin, who is currently pregnant, whether she would like the crates.

Photo: Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images

The markets that aren’t based on immediate social connections — and reinforce those connections with every swap — often form by common location. New York City alone hosts a parents’ group for every real estate designation (I stopped counting after 15 neighborhoods’ worth). Groups offer ways for members to meet other families, swap clothing and other goods, and discuss things like pediatricians, schools, child development, and, of course, stuff.

You can find stuff and chat about it in various mediums: Facebook, email listservs, IRL swap events. You have to act fast if you want to snag an item — “Upper West Side Moms don’t mess around,” observes Tara of the listserv classifieds — but when these systems work, they work.

Brooklyn mom Alice and her partner used the Park Slope Parents group as their No. 1 source of newborn items for their 5-month-old. (Disclosure: Their family is part of my family’s swap pipeline.) Some of their efforts were similar to Tara’s, like the time they responded to an ad within 30 seconds of its posting, only to be told they were seventh in line. But the PSP live swap yielded bounty: “We scored. Ralph Lauren, Rosie Pope, the tights with foxes on the knees that are my favorite,” Alice says. She describes the live swap’s atmosphere as similar to the emails: “a little ‘sharks in a feeding frenzy...’ the better-quality stuff, the minute it’s put out, someone grabs and takes it” — but saw most people taking only what they needed.

It was a pretty social scene; some attendees seemed to already know each other from other parent meet-ups, and Alice and her partner ran into some friends themselves. Alice likes to pass along stuff to other friends. She also donates some of it to a nonprofit working in Haiti and a shelter supporting homeless LGBT people. “We take everything and re-disperse it. Even if it doesn’t work for our household, it seems like an important part of this economy, not throwing anything out,” she comments.

Re-dispersing and not throwing anything out is a fundamental tenet of PSP. President Susan Fox founded the community in 2002 after seeing a lot of perfectly usable exersaucers lying on the curb every time she went for a walk. (For non-parents reading this, an exersaucer is a stationary activity center for babies to sit in and play with a sensory overload of toys.) “I wondered if there was a way to tell people ‘Hey, there’s a supersaucer up for grabs here on Fifth Street,’ and get them redistributed to people who could really use them,” she told PSP Online in 2005. In its first year, PSP had 500 members; today, it has over 5,000. PSP hosts more than 100 subgroups for connection, discussion, advice, and classifieds.

They’ve been throwing live swaps in neighborhood churches and other venues since 2007. “The October 2016 [baby stuff swap] event was our biggest ever, with over 225 people there,” writes Fox in an email. Leftovers go to various nonprofits: “We’ve donated to a lot of different organizations over the years — Brooklyn Family Justice Center, Little Essentials, Housing Works, a preemie hospital in Philadelphia, and others. The organizations get SOOO many things post-swap (probably 25 tall kitchen bags’ worth of stuff) ... that many times they have enough for a year or two so they don’t need us to donate except every few years.”

Photo: Emanuele Ravecca/EyeEm/Getty Images

All this swapped stuff represents new merchandise unsought. Do baby brands care about this gray market? Brands in other retail markets hold vastly different outlooks on recycling and reselling — Patagonia's (pro) and Lululemon's (anti) are diametrically opposed. Curious, I reached out to six different baby goods companies to ask their opinions. Five didn’t respond (Fisher-Price/Mattel, Carter’s, Toys R Us, Hanna Andersson, Polarn O. Pyret), and Skip Hop, the sixth, declined an interview, saying they don’t deal with concerns regarding secondary markets.

I’m not suggesting that brands should or shouldn’t care about desperate parents offloading the occasional bassinet for milk money — you do you, brands. But they should know that if there’s one thing parents can’t stop talking about, it’s being parents — and all the literal and figurative crap that comes with parenthood. And we seek out quality items by brand name: While I was typing this sentence, Alice texted to ask if we were ready to hand down our daughter’s Zutano booties (here’s to a sock product that actually stays on!).

When my child is 4, 10, or 18, will I still remember which brand of onesie was the best fitting and most durable? Will that brand even still exist? While I appreciate the products that work well now, I sincerely hope that this knowledge will have fallen out of my brain by then. Frankly, I can’t wait to get this next load of tiny stuff out of my apartment. And just as much, I can’t wait to kvell over how cute it looks on my kid’s tiny cousins, friends, and neighbors.

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