Baby Jogger Stroller Turns 10 Years Old And Is Still On A Roll

YAKIMA - If parenthood is the death of the self, the Baby Jogger is CPR for the ego.

Now 10 years old, the Baby Jogger stroller is popular because it lets on-the-go parents run for physical fitness and spend time with their children.

Since Phil Baechler conceived the baby-carrier when he wanted to take his young son along for his fitness runs, annual sales at Racing Strollers Inc. have rolled to $5 million.

Phil and Mary Baechler are celebrating their first decade in business by upgrading their line of strollers, adding quick-release wheels, for example.

The Joggers, which cost two and three times as much as traditional strollers, inspire the same sort of loyalty as luxury cars. A door leading to the factory floor at the company's headquarters here is plastered with customers' testimonials.

One offers two snapshots, which show a Baby Jogger with snow up to its wheel rims.

"Dear Baby Jogger People," writes the customer, a woman from Alabama. "Yes, it really does go in the snow."

At Gregg's Greenlake Cycle, store manager Donovan Boyd said he is selling the Joggers not only to runner-parents, who were the primary customers in the beginning, but to anyone who wants a smooth-rolling stroller.

"A lot of people are using them as nice, all-terrain strollers," Boyd said.

Is the market for "all-terrain strollers" more grim evidence that the trend to play increasingly hard is eclipsing even the tradition of relaxed pram-pushing? Perhaps the Baechlers should build in stopwatches and odometers on the Jogger handles.

It also may simply be recognition that the Joggers are appreciated for their stability and balance, born of the design on three large bicycle wheels.

"You're going around Greenlake, you'll probably end up in the grass or gravel from time to time, and the Baby Jogger has no problem with that," said Boyd.

Phil Baechler, 46, said he derived the stroller's slant from Double A Fuel dragsters. The Baby Jogger allowed Baechler to quit his copy-editing job at the Yakima Herald Republic seven years ago. He started the company in a rented garage.

"I had no intention of going into business," he said. "I was just trying to figure out how to get my daily run in."

Now, he and Mary employ 35 people. They take on temporary help during the busy summer season. They market the Joggers in bicycle shops and specialty baby stores with the help of about 2,700 dealers across the United States. They also have a distributor in Canada, and two in Europe.

In 1984, the first year of production, the Baechlers sold 113 strollers.

The first buyers were "hard-core nutty runners," said Mary Baechler.

By 1988, annual unit sales were 8,894. By 1993, the number had climbed to almost 29,000.

Phil Baechler's original model, which now hangs from the factory's rafters, turned on a heavy bicycle fork upfront and placed the baby in a precarious sling. The trademark handle, which extends a half-step behind the wheels, is recognizable even in that prototype, however.

Now, the line of Joggers exudes a more refined style shared by, say, the most expensive backpacks on the market.

The slings where the baby sits are dyed deep colors ("grape" is the most popular, Boyd said). And a gleaming aluminum chassis makes the stroller look even lighter than it is (a standard Jogger weighs 21 pounds).

Suggested retail prices place the company's strollers way beyond most of the strollers you'll find at Toys R Us. Baby Joggers are listed at $260 to $280; Super Joggers at about $385; Super Twinners, $510. Sun canopies, rain canopies and wire baskets cost extra.

"The person who spends this kind of money, they're not the kind of person who would spend $100 for a bike," Mary Baechler said.

Like other successful entrepreneurs, the Baechlers lately have had to take on new competitors, including knock-offs made in Taiwan. They've also fought several patent infringements.

Mary, 38, who oversees the company's sales, marketing and office operations, is the daughter of a New York photographer and credits that family background for some of her eye for design. The Jogger's design is strictly high-tech yuppie. No teddy bears or gingham.

"I wanted them to be striking," she said.

They are so eye-catching that, when Patagonia featured a model pushing one of the Joggers in a 1986 fashion photograph, calls poured into the Baechler's shop.

The Patagonia photographer now does all the corporate photography for Racing Strollers Inc.

About the only thing associated with the Baby Jogger that has not blossomed is the Baechlers' marriage. They divorced this year, and they acknowledged that their "24-hour relationship" contributed to their marital difficulties. They continue to feature themselves with their son, Travis, in promotional material.

Married or not, they also expect sales this year to be $5.5 million to $6 million. That might add up to a 20 percent increase.