Safer babies, happier parents

The owners of Baby Outfitters are passionate about their business

March 22, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Michelle Boucher and Kit Orloff started their store, Baby Outfitters, by accident.

Orloff had discovered a baby bottle that allowed infants to drink without the help of a parent. She recommended it to Boucher, and before long their friends wanted it.

Four years later, the friends, who are from California and now live in Howard County, run a retail store in Columbia. They were invited to create "swag bags" of baby items that were given to celebrities at the Academy Awards, and they have helped a family featured on Extreme Makeover to create a baby-friendly new home.

They are working on a project with Oprah Winfrey, and they have designed a stroller now in the possession of Julia Roberts.

But working with celebrities is not what drives these women. They are mothers, and they are passionate about finding products that make babies safer and their parents happier, they say.

What parent could resist a pacifier with a special case that snaps shut to keep it clean before it hits the floor? Or shoes that squeak, so it is easier to keep track of a little one running around the house?

"I could tell you a story about every product in here," says Boucher, waving her arm at items ranging from dad-friendly diaper bags to molded-rubber seats that help babies learn to sit.

Johanna Fong, who lives in Columbia and imports the squeaky shoes from China, said she has been selling the shoes at Baby Outfitters for three years. "They are definitely looking for things you can't buy" at the big stores, she said of the store's owners.

"They're very attentive to their customers," Fong said. If a customer comes in and can't find the right size, one of the store owners will call Fong to see if the size can be found.

The Baby Outfitters story began in 2000, when Boucher and Orloff, both new to Howard County, became friends. In 2001, they both had baby boys.

Orloff, who has an older daughter, Madison, told Boucher to try the Podee bottle, which features a nipple attached to a tube, so the baby doesn't have to lift the entire bottle.

Soon their friends wanted the bottles, but because they were made by a small California manufacturer, they were not widely available. Boucher called Podee and asked for a case to sell to her friends.

Orloff and Boucher began researching other items and selling them to friends. "We starting finding more really cool products," Boucher said. By early 2002, they had set up a Web site and had taken over several rooms of Orloff's Ellicott City house. They were holding parties at friends' houses, showing the products they had found and taking orders.

But the parties took more and more time, and the Orloff house became more and more crowded. Soon, the women realized they needed a store. That is when Baby Outfitters was born.

The three-year-old store is not large, but it is carefully arranged to showcase its range of products. Car seats are on shelves along one wall, strollers are lined up along another.

Boucher and Orloff have a network of testers, and they are not afraid to reject a product that does not truly make life easier for parents. Many products bear a sticker that says: "This is a Baby Outfitters Mom-Tested Product."

"The whole foundation for our business is, if we don't use it and we don't love it, we don't sell it," Boucher said.

Even manager Renee Davis, who started working at the store in May 2005, has been pressed into service, testing Preggie Pops that are said to relieve nausea. She says they work, and she is eager to test other items after her baby is born in July. "It's one thing to listen to what the manufacturers say," she said. "It's another to hear what the mothers say."

Baby Outfitters keeps 20-pound and 30-pound weights on hand, so parents can feel what it is like to push a stroller or carry a car seat with a child-sized weight inside.

And the store owners are obsessed with car-seat safety. They and other store employees have taken a four-day course in seat installation, and they install car seats for a small fee. Orloff said she adjusted the car seat for Christian Bale's child when she was in California for the Oscars.

Manufacturers sometimes send Boucher and Orloff products to test before they are finalized, and the women often make suggestions that find their way into the final product. They are working with Sunshine Kids on a five-point car seat for children that weigh as much as 85 pounds.

They also worked with stroller-maker Valco to create a customized stroller with pink accents for girls and blue for boys. They created a double one in pink and blue for Julia Roberts.

Recently, they have begun a "concierge" service that gives customized purchasing advice to parents or parents-to-be. And they're talking about opening other locations through a franchise system.

"The future, I think, looks incredible because of the calls that are coming in," Orloff said. "They trust us. They know that we are moms and we are only doing what is best for them. We really specialize in giving information, the right information."

Baby Outfitters is in the Columbia Business Center, 6490 Dobbin Road. Information: 410-884-1444.

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