American Girl gets all dolled up

October 6, 2008 at 11:43 pm Leave a comment

American Girl gets all dolled up: Bigger store ready for holiday rush

By Sandra M. Jones | Chicago Tribune reporter

October 2, 2008

Goodbye, Lord & Taylor. Hello, American Girl Place.

The Middleton, Wis.-based doll emporium completed its much anticipated move to Water Tower Place on Wednesday, stepping into Lord & Taylor’s highly visible command post at the front of the Magnificent Mile mall.

The two-level flagship is 40 percent bigger than its original store, which was the first in the nation when it opened in 1998 just down the street on Chicago Avenue. That extra space means less chance of getting elbowed by frazzled parents who can’t find the doll hair salon and more room to display the historical dolls that are at the company’s roots.

“It’s much more open so you don’t feel so crowded,” said Monica Doyle, who just bought her 6-year-old granddaughter a Samantha doll, the turn-of-the century character that was among the first American Girl dolls. “The other store was so frenzied.”

There is no dispute that the store is a showcase. The retailer even kept the dramatic white columns and arched ceilings that once gave Lord & Taylor its department-store distinction.

Still, American Girl, like Barbie before her, is facing increased competition from newcomers such as Hannah Montana and Bratz dolls.

When American Girl got its start as Pleasant Co. in 1986, 10-year-olds didn’t have cell phones and avatars had yet to make their way into children’s lexicon.

Playing with dolls is still popular, accounting for 14 percent of toy sales, according to NPD Group. But there are many more distractions for girls today, said Gary Rudman, founder of GTR Consulting, a Sausalito, Calif.-based market research firm that tracks children and teenagers.

He calls today’s generation of children “chill challenged,” or unable to chill out.

“There certainly are a lot of pressures on tween girls today to grow up faster and look a certain way and act a certain way,” said Rudman. “This is almost giving them permission to stay young. It’s a safe haven.”

That is just what American Girl President Ellen Brothers is angling to achieve.

“We are a company that doesn’t push girls to grow up too fast,” said Brothers.

The core age group of girls playing with American Girl dolls is 8 to 12, the same as when the company started 22 years ago, said Brothers.

The economy, however, is another question.

Retailers are bracing for one of the toughest holiday seasons in decades because of economic strains. Even luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, typically immune from economic slowdowns, are feeling the effects of consumers’ frugal shopping habits.

A day at American Girl Place can cost hundreds of dollars, starting with a $90 doll and book, $21 per person for lunch in the tea room and $10 to $20 for the doll hair salon. Then there an endless array of dresses and sweaters for girls and dolls alike, DVDs and doll furniture.

American Girl Place has managed to increase revenue every year but two since Mattel Inc. bought the company in 1998. While the catalog remains the biggest part of the company’s $430 million business, the retail stores have driven growth of late. The company added two smaller stores in malls in Atlanta and Dallas last year and plans to add another two in Boston and Minneapolis malls this year.

“We’re all worried about the economy,” said Brothers. “But toys, typically in recessionary times, is a category that fares better than most.”

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