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Before rain overwhelmed my windshield wipers as I drove through a shopping center parking lot, I noticed a 40-year-old woman cringing beneath a tiny pink Hello Kitty umbrella. The umbrella was barely big enough to cover her hair. I laughed, but partly out of a sense of irony. She looked silly but at least she had something keeping rain off her head. I had to race across the parking lot without coat, hat, or umbrella.

This wasn't the first time I had been caught empty handed (and headed) in a downpour. Raingear just isn't as high on my list in San Diego as it was when I lived back East. There, nobody lives through a year of seasons without foul-weather gear. Here, until it's too late, I never think about it. But, next week, Mom is coming to town to winter in San Diego and she'll need an umbrella. This winter is going to be blustery, so I need a high-quality umbrella that keeps Mom dry and doesn't blow out when wind blows hard.

My first call was to Luggage Center in La Jolla. "I carry eight different styles of umbrellas," said manager Jeff Wilson, "because people's needs are different. Our most popular umbrella right now is the WindGuard by Samsonite [$24.99]. It has two hoods, so as the wind rushes between the two hoods, it actually pushes the first hood down, so in a high gust of wind, say up to 30 miles an hour, it won't flip inside out. They are not designed to withstand gusts of more than 25 or 30 miles an hour. It comes in red, khaki, black, and navy. The umbrella has an automatic open and close. We also carry the same umbrella in an automatic open, but not automatic close, for $19.99."

I explained to Wilson that I feared Mom would leave the umbrella at home if it was too bulky. "Ours are thinner, lighter, and smaller," he explained, "because they are more geared to travel. WindGuards are slim, and they will run anywhere from 12 inches to about 16 inches in length, which is pretty short. Most umbrellas that have a canopy as large as the WindGuards' -- over 45-inch diameter canopy -- will be on a really long golf stick, which will be over three feet long. [The WindGuard] has the same size canopy as some of your golf sticks, but is less than half the length."

I was sold. I hustled down to the store to pick up a WindGuard. But, by the time I arrived, the $24.99 model, which opens and closes automatically, had sold out. I bought the automatic-open model for $19.99 and headed home for more research. "I want a spare," I told husband Patrick. "Call the Walking Company," suggested Patrick. "They carry good-quality products, and I have seen umbrellas there."

"The umbrella that sells really well -- as a matter of fact we only have one left -- is called the WindPro umbrella by ShedRain [$38.00]," explained sales associate Jonathan. "When it rains, we blow right out of these umbrellas. There are a couple of nice features; it is bigger than the average umbrella, not quite as big as a golf umbrella but almost. You could definitely have two people under it. It is sturdy, and the handle sits nicely in your hand. The umbrella has an automatic open-and-close button. The one thing about umbrellas that I have experienced is that when it is rainy and windy and you're getting in and out of your car, it is a big hassle if you've got to push the umbrella open yourself while holding onto all your stuff. You just want to stick your umbrella out the door and pop it open with a button and then step out to protect your stuff."

I couldn't agree more. But, since the Fashion Valley Walking Company was nearly out of the umbrella, I popped into their UTC store instead. "I had a lady come in and buy four umbrellas just an hour ago," remarked the salesclerk. I snatched up the WindPro and headed off.

Jonathan was right. I had found the Rolls-Royce of umbrellas. The feel was firm, sturdy, well made. The open/close button was quick, and the size more than big enough for sheltering mom, but not so huge as to make her look like she was hitting the golf links. At home, I called the company and spoke with Jeff Blauer, vice president of sales and marketing at ShedRain, who filled me in on some particulars of their umbrellas. "WindPro uses a construction that is in several of our umbrellas," Blauer offered. " It's a vented umbrella with certain components in it such as nylon cables that hold back the cover so it doesn't invert. The bigger the cover gets, the more intricate detail there is."

How should a customer decide on an umbrella?

"There are all kinds of umbrellas for different lifestyles," answered Blauer. "If they live in a walking city, like Chicago, New York, in the downtown areas, then I would probably buy a golf umbrella that is big. If I live somewhere in a suburb, I am running to the mall, back and forth from my car, I am probably going to want a small compact umbrella that I can just throw in my car. A soccer mom wants a really big umbrella so she could have the whole family underneath it. Or, for traveling, you want something small and flat. It just depends on what your needs are.

"Whatever the choice," Blauer added, "our umbrellas have a lifetime warranty."

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