A few months ago I needed to buy a stroller, so my husband and I went to the giant Buy Buy Baby store in Rockville and listened intently as Andre, the store's stroller expert, walked us through the options.
He went through the features, the prices, the colors, the pros and the cons of numerous contraptions, but it quickly became obvious to me that my first decision was going to be a pretty basic one: American or European? The two were so different.
The American strollers were big and ugly and felt a bit cheap, but they were full of wonderful conveniences such as cup holders, trays and baskets big enough for a trip to the grocery store. The European strollers were well designed and superbly engineered but maddeningly devoid of creature comforts for parent or child.
I pointed this out to Andre, who agreed and showed some obvious long-standing frustration. If some outfit would just make a stroller combining the best elements from both sides of the Atlantic, he said, it would clean up.
I have been wondering ever since why there would be such differences between the U.S. and foreign models of strollers, or, for that matter, for so many things. If the design of products is influenced primarily by the demands of shoppers, my questions then fall squarely on consumers. Don't European shoppers want the same things we do? Shouldn't everyone appreciate the value of a good cup holder? Aren't we all demanding high-quality fabric?
The basic answers are no, no and no. The reasons lie in the cultures and lifestyles that shape shoppers' desires. The American consumer's wants and needs are distinct from those of Europeans.
"People assume we are very similar. We are not that similar in our day-to-day living," explained Stephanie Althof, a marketing strategist and researcher for Hellman Associates, a Waterloo, Iowa-based consulting firm that works with many American and European manufacturers.
Among the first characteristics American shoppers notice about European products is that they are so small. The main reason for that is that many Europeans -- and Asians, for that matter -- live in smaller houses and apartments than we do, so their ovens and washing machines have to be more compact.
Refrigerators are smaller for the same reason, but also because many Europeans go to the local market several times a week, rather than make a big weekly trip to the supermarket as many Americans do.
Strollers in Europe need to fold into neat little packages because they won't be left on the sprawling front porch or in the two-car garage, as happens here. They'll be standing in the front hall for all to see.
Cars are smaller overseas because streets are smaller and gas is more expensive.
I'm generalizing a bit here, but these examples show the ripple effects that cause shoppers to buy what they buy. But perhaps, even more than the mechanics of what fits where, what motivates shoppers -- and influences designers -- are the more nebulous attributes of our different cultures.
Richard Penney, an adjunct professor at the Parsons School of Design, has done some design work for European companies. He finds that their customers "value quality, they value longevity, they value certain kinds of style which represent their culture." Cities in Europe that have been around for hundreds of years yield residents with a respect for history, permanence and design. And that sensibility translates even into modern-day purchases, he said. Like strollers.
In contrast, Penney argues, in our own, much younger country, consumers have historically put much more value on innovation, whimsy, vitality and comfort, and less on finesse, function, elegance and engineering. Europe has imposing 14th-century castles. Our castle is the mall.
"We are so geared for so long to buying on a whim to a certain extent, on impulse, and shopping has become the national entertainment and sport," he said. "Those are major driving factors [in design]."
If the first differentiating factor between European and U.S. products is need or function (size, for example), and the second is cultural influence, the third is value. To Europeans, according to product designers, something is considered to have value if it will last and works extremely well -- and shoppers are willing to pay more for those attributes.
To Americans, something with superficial style and only reasonable effectiveness can be seen as having good value if it's cheap enough: economy cars, $15 strollers, ready-to-assemble furniture, and cute, inexpensive shoes. Price is simply a much greater issue with American consumers than it is with Europeans.
And that's not necessarily bad. "We turn out fabulous things at remarkably affordable prices, in most cases," said Penney. "Europeans, believe me, look at us and say, 'How do they do it?' "
Indeed, they are trying to do it themselves. Both in Europe and here, the divergent sensibilities of design are coming together. For years, U.S. retailers, designers and manufacturers have been talking about how the American consumer is becoming more educated and discerning, and they offer as evidence successful, design-rich retail chains such as Crate & Barrel, and the innovations at the mass merchant Target, which has made a killing on products linked to star designers Michael Graves and Todd Oldham.
Likewise, at retailers like Home Depot's Expo Design and Sears's Great Indoors, the number of European products for sale is exploding. "The smart manufacturers are coming over here from Europe, studying what the Americans want and making that," said marketing strategist Althof. One example is larger five- and six-burner ranges that many foreign manufacturers are selling here for our larger kitchens, when anything more than a four-burner cooktop is rare in European homes.
Such changes don't happen quickly, though. Mercedes-Benz was dragged kicking and screaming into the age of the cup holder, adding the conveniences only when the luxury automaker began losing share to high-end vehicles with plenty of places to put your Coke.
But I even see the progress in strollers. My husband and I decided on a lovely Italian Peg Perego stroller because we really needed something that would fold well and would also hold up to the city's bumpy sidewalks. Plus, I can't stand how the chintzy fabric on my American-made Graco car seat gets stained by, of all things, water. In my Peg Perego I got fantastic fabric and engineering but had to give up on the basket, which is small and hard to reach. I figured I'd learn to carry less.
But the sign that European manufacturing is adapting to Americans appeared when I opened the box and dumped the stroller out on the floor. Something else came tumbling out with it: a clip-on cup holder.
If you have a question, comment or concern about what you see when you shop, write to Margaret Pressler at email@example.com.