Cashing in on boomer babies

Succeeding in small business

January 13, 1992|By Jane Applegate | Jane Applegate,Los Angeles Times

Baby boomers had 4.2 million of their own babies in 1990, just short of the high of 4.3 million baby boomers born in 1957. These new boomers, many born to two-career couples, are producing profits for small-business owners such as Christine Mechalas, Linda Rogers and Lee Long, who have child-oriented firms.

If the 54 percent of original baby boomers who are in the work force have children and attend conferences, they mean potential business for KiddieCorp in San Diego.

Founder Mechalas, a marketing expert with an MBA, was working for a restaurant chain when her father mentioned that one of his employees was having child-care problems and the problems interfered with job performance.

Always interested in starting her own business, Mechalas began researching the market for corporate child-care solutions. She attended classes in preschool administration and met with child-care consultants before founding KiddieCorp in 1986.

As Mechalas provides consulting services and advises a hospital and a major shopping center developer on how to set up child-care centers, KiddieCorp's Club Kid is taking off. Club Kid sets up instant, temporary child-care centers at hotels and conference centers across the country.

Unlike years past, when most working parents left children behind with friends or relatives while they attended meetings, Mechalas says, today's parents appreciate the opportunity to bring kids along. This way, they can spend time as a family after work is done.

Club Kid charges $8 to $11 an hour per child for full-service child care. In recent months, Club Kid staffers have diapered, fed and entertained the children of pediatricians, financial planners, attorneys and members of the American Video Association.

"Our biggest growth is in infant care," said Mechalas, whose staff has cared for babies as young as 3 months.

To keep overhead costs low, KiddieCorp contracts with YMCA staffers and other trained child-care providers to run their DTC temporary centers.

"We offer training and orientation for the local people we hire," Mechalas said. "We also buy all our equipment and supplies locally."

Business has been steadily increasing. This year, Mechalas expects sales to hit $500,000.

"I've taken care of 2,000 children last year," said Mechalas, who is 33 and single. "If this doesn't prepare me to be a mother, nothing will!"

Linda Rogers and Lee Long don't take care of children; they dress them in quality, recycled clothing sold in their three northeast New Jersey Children's Exchange stores.

"Clothes worn by the very young are rarely worn out, because kids grow so fast," Rogers said. "But only the quality merchandise survives long enough to make it to a resale shop like ours."

At first, Long and Rogers accepted clothes on consignment, paying the owners after they sold. But that system spawned a paperwork nightmare.

Today, they buy clothes outright and keep an abundant inventory. They only purchase clean, attractive, stain-free clothes. When items are top-notch, they even accept them by mail from outside the area.

The first Children's Exchange opened in downtown Ridgefield Park in the fall of 1988. The concept was so successful that stores in downtown Bergenfield and Fair Lawn followed.

About half of Children's Exchange customers are grandparents. "They know quality, and they often help working parents with the shopping," Rogers said.

The average price of an item sold at Children's Exchange is $4.50, although a $160 velvet party dress once sold for $40. Sales are expected to reach $300,000 this year.

"There is a very slim margin of profit, because we are in a retail mecca," Rogers said. "Customers are smart, and they are always comparing our prices to those charged by the discount stores."

Many customers tell her that they like buying recycled clothing because it fits into the back-to-basics lifestyle taking hold in today's tough economic times.

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