Woman makes it her business to create stroller tote bag

July 19, 1992|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

It used to be a major undertaking for Angela Johnston to run an errand or go shopping.

"I'd take my 3-month-old daughter, a stroller, a diaper bag and my purse," said the 28-year-old Columbia resident. "That left little room for carrying packages and I thought, 'There's got to be a better way.' "

One night she awoke with a solution and began sketching a design. The result was Stroller Mate, a product that launched her into a business that last year grossed more than $100,000.

Her late-night idea was a tote bag that would hold diapers, bottles and packages, yet slide securely over the push bars of a stroller without tipping it.

Mrs. Johnston created a bag out of a pink printed Waverly fabric with straps that allowed it to fit onto a stroller or be carried as a tote. It was designed to stay attached even when the stroller was folded up, and it had a cord lock that was simple to open and close.

"I made it for myself and then all of my friends liked it and wanted one," Mrs. Johnston said.

After hearing about the bag's popularity, her father suggested that she start a business. Mrs. Johnston, working with her mother and sister, began Family Traditions in the fall of 1990. Besides Stroller Mate, they also began to sell hand-painted baby shoes and T-shirts.

At first, they just took orders at a winter craft show in Howard County, where they compiled a mailing list of prospective customers. By early 1991, Family Traditions' line had extended to stores in Washington and Laurel. By spring that year, they began setting up shop at kiosk carts from Annapolis Mall, Towson Town Center, White Marsh Mall, the Inner Harbor and The Shops at National Place in Washington.

They have since abandoned mail-order sales, focusing instead on sales in the Baltimore/Washington corridor.

Her first kiosk, named Tiny Treasures, opened in March of last year and had an inventory of 50 Stroller Mates, 60 pairs of baby shoes, three dozen rompers and four dozen socks.

"We sold 11 pairs of shoes on the first day. It was a good first week and business has been going on from that day since," Mrs. Johnston said.

The Stroller Mate retails for $19.99, and a painted T-shirt and shorts set costs between $17 and $20. Last Christmas season, customers ordered about 700 Stroller Mates.

Family Traditions now employs four seamstresses who make the Stroller Mates in a workroom in suburban Atlanta, where her mother Marian Rochner lives and takes care of the paperwork and also makes some of the clothes. Mrs. Johnston's sister, Dawn Rochner, lives in Glenwood in Howard County and occasionally works at a cart at the Columbia Mall. Five part-time employees also help out.

Later this year, Mrs. Johnston hopes to introduce a women's clothing line of cotton print dresses and hats.

Although the Stroller Mates launched her business, painting the clothes is the "most fun," Mrs. Johnston said. The toddler fashions include rompers with matching shoes and socks on which are painted brightly colored sailboats, trains, the A-B-C's and the numbers 1-2-3. Popular selling shoes are tiny high-top canvas versions in red and blue, as well as pink ones trimmed in lace and roses.

"At Christmas, my house was covered from one level to the next with shoes," Mrs. Johnston said. "I have baby clothes in my living room, office, on my stereo cabinet and anywhere else I can put them."

Mrs. Johnston -- who spent three years at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Rutherford, N.J. -- says she plans to complete a bachelor's degree in art.

In the meantime, however, she is working about 55 hours a week to keep Family Traditions on track. She says she has plenty of support from her husband, Brian Johnson, supervisor of construction for Ryland Homes. Her daughter, April, who was the inspiration behind Stroller Mate, is now 4, and occasionally "helps" her mom at the cart three days a week.

When asked about her hectic pace, Mrs. Johnston replied: "I have a kid, a business and a husband, and I'm going to continue to take it one day at a time."

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