FreshMeat #16 from Steve Portigal
FreshMeat? Well, thank you kindly, I’d love some!
All dolled up, with someplace to go.
American Girl Place is an astonishing retail environment
in Chicago, a destination for the many fans of the
American Girl dolls. Over 5 million of the 18-inch,
slightly cartoonish American Girl dolls have been sold by
the Pleasant Company (started by Pleasant T. Rowland in
1986, and if that isn’t proof that name equals destiny,
I don’t know what would be) who were acquired by Mattel
The Place itself is a three-floor department store located
just off of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. It truly
is a destination retail setting, doing much more than
simply vending the products, it takes the whole concept
even further, with such amenities as a salon, and a cafe.
It is somewhat difficult to separate the wonders of
American Girl Place from the wonders of the American Girl
products, so I’ll describe them together.
The products are extremely well-organized, and highly
structured. The lead offering is The American Girls
Collection: a series of dolls that are each branded
is a consistent set of products (i.e., books about
their adventures and period-appropriate costumes).
For example, Addy is a courageous girl of the Civil War,
from 1864 (Addy – 1864 – A proud, courageous girl – stories
of freedom and family). Josephina is an Hispanic girl of
heart and hope, from 1824. Kit is a bright spark in the dark
depression, from 1934. There are 8 dolls in all, ranging
from 1764 to 1944. In the lower level of the store, they
are each presented in gorgeous museum-like dioramas around
the perimeter of a large room, with product pull-tags
placed directly below. The whole room reeks of heritage,
legacy, quality, and the better times of our past.
The balancing act here is how they depict parts of US
history that were difficult (or oppressive, or racist)
through the eyes of their Girl, without being revisionist
about the past. I don’t know if they succeed in that
balance. I have a gut reaction when I see a smiling doll
who had to deal with slavery, or economic challenges.
“Wait a minute – that was a terrible experience – why are
they celebrating it?” – but I do eventually realize that
there are many stories to any experience. People will
smile, care for a child, fall in love, or whatever,
regardless of the larger circumstances. Wasn’t this one of
the many lessons from The Diary of Anne Frank?
I was fascinated to see that their latest offering is
called “Girls of Many Lands.” It is possibly a response
to 9/11, in the increasing awareness within the US that
understanding the rest of the world is vitally important.
On another level, the text indicates that these girls
are finding their place in a changing world, a reference
to the uncertainty of 2002, and the uncertainty of
pre-adolescence: “As you get older, the world seems both
bigger and smaller at the same time. It’s full of
opportunities – and questions, too. How do I fit in? Who
will I become? What is life like for other girls my age?”
The dolls themselves are smaller, intended for display, not
play, and include Neela from India in 1939, and Spring Pearl
from China, in 1857.
The second major product line is American Girl Today. The
American Girls Collection (described above) times out in 1944,
and is based on specific, fixed backstories. In contrast,
American Girl Today dolls are ready for personalization. The
set of dolls is displayed in a glass case, all dressed in the
same neutral school uniform, posed as if for a class photo.
They all seem completely alike, but upon closer inspection,
one sees the variation in hair, eye, and skin color. Looking
at all these near-identical, smiling, staring dolls was pretty
The dolls are available in a range of combinations of pigments
(i.e., GT21F hass light skin, curly honey-blond hair, hazel eyes,
while GT2F has medium skin, dark brown hair, and lightbrown
eyes). Rather than defining the backstory, they are creating
a neutral backdrop for the customer to build upon, further
served by identifying the doll with a model number such as
GT3F rather than a name like Kit. The tag line is “What kind of girl are you?”
There are a huge number of outfits available for the Today doll
including: cheerleader, baseball player, soccer player, skier, and baker.
In one of the few product line inconsistencies, there is a
Today doll named Lindsey. There is no obvious reason why
they’ve created a character within this product line. Oh,
and what do these dolls cost? For $135, you can purchase
Lindsey, with the Lindsey book, a scooter, a laptop and
laptop case. This is a $15 saving versus buying each item
There are also a few supplementary product lines such as
Angelina Ballerina (a mouse), and Bitty Baby.
A number of electronic gizmos (for a person, not for a doll)
are available, including a PDA, a digital video camera, and
an MP3 player. Of anything they sell, this was the least
integrated product line – they all were clearly not your
mother’s Palm, with lots of pink plastic and fun buttons
and so on, but it didn’t seem like they had a complete idea
as to what their design language was for electronic goods.
There are also books, about feelings, school, boys, and
babysitting. My personal favorite was a series of books
about Amelia, who carries around a notebook that she fills
with interesting facts and observations. She was the only
character who’s hook was that she was smart. She seemed
reminiscent of Harriet the Spy, and her products seemed to
be ignored by shoppers during my visits.
The store features a salon, where there are options between
$10 and $20 that include brushing out the doll’s tangles, a
misting, styling, and a hair accessory such as a barrette.
There are also books for sale that give styling tips for
the doll’s hair (and for your hair).
There is a cafe with a parodic Art Deco look, thick black
and white horizontal stripes run around the room, with lots
of hot pink and enormous “buttons” serving as drapery
clasps. The menu is a prix-fixe affair, offering a 3-course
lunch, and a similar tea. It’s the ultimate “ladies who
lunch” environment, for young ladies, of course. A poster
outside the store advertises the cafe, showing the empty
restaurant, with just a doll sitting at a table, alone. This
was definitely a disturbing image.
In the basement is a theater, with live performances of
the second American Girls musical, “Circle of Friends.”
Soundtrack CDs are available for purchase. The soundtrack
to the American Girls Revue includes “The American Girls
Anthem” in which the characters declare their intention
to be the very best that they can be.
Overall, a key here is how they have created multiple
customers, all experiencing a different vicarious
experience, yet all of them compatible. The dolls are
rooted in the past, suggesting an authenticity and history
akin to an original Teddy Roosevelt bear (versus a modern
day Gund or Beanie Baby.) The store plays host to young
girls with their mothers, and their grandmothers, each
taking this in from a different perspective. Grandmothers
remember their childhood, and raising their own children,
mothers can continue a legacy, and the girls are into
something tuned just for them. The extra dollop of genius
is in the next step of recursion: the child can play
mother to her doll through these products (certainly,
allowing a young girl to play at motherhood has been part
of the appeal of dolls forever, but American Girl taps
into that incredibly well, for example the Dress Like
Your Doll department with matching girl-sized and
doll-sized outfits). The result is three-and-a-half
generations of customers!
Playing this game further, near the front entrance is a
rack of souvenirs available for both girls, and their
dolls. There are girl-sized and doll-sized umbrellas as
well as caps, t-shirts, and jackets that read “American
Girl Place.” My doll went to American Girl Place and all
she got was this lousy T-shirt?
Or consider the photo studio, where shoppers can get
their own copy of American Girl magazine, with their
photo on the cover. Which begs the question – who do they
suggest the American Girl actually is? The doll? The girl?
Or, both? American girls buy American Girls. Another subtle
but powerful play with identity.
So what are some of the lessons here?
- Understand the multiple players in a purchase process,
and ideally sell to them all
- Organize and structure your products consistently
- Create products that tell stories
- Create accessories and product extensions that tell
more stories and help your customers tell stories
- If you want to create a destination retail for your
brand, don’t do a “theme park” – take the core
experience you offer further
Of course, this is nothing but a first pass. Observation,
and analysis, and all of it IMHO. There are several
obvious next steps:
- look at the actual customers to test these hypotheses
- understand other aspects of doll culture (consider
collectors as a “lead user” community, for example)
- consider American Girl Place as a metaphor, and being
to apply the lessons learned from the process to other
business situations beyond selling dolls.
As a final thought, we always find it horrifying to see a
company being effective in marketing to a target, especially
if that target is a child. I was prepared for that (ridiculous and
personally hypocritical) reaction myself, but I think it’s relevant
to look at the overwhelming positiveness of their message, and
how sincerely and consistently they present it.
Dolls as Role Models, Neither Barbie Nor Britney
By STEPHEN KINZER
Published: November 6, 2003
CHICAGO, Nov. 5 — Surrounded by exuberant girls, including her own 8-year-old, a Wisconsin resident named Jean Carter seemed positively thrilled as she paid $650, more than twice what she had planned, at American Girl Place here.
To start, she had bought two of the store’s $90 dolls, each representing a character from a different era in American history, and then novels about each doll’s character. Then came high tea, the musical theater show and finally some of the endless stream of tie-in merchandise that has made American Girl a huge marketing success as well as a cultural phenomenon.
“It’s a racket, but it’s a good racket,” Ms. Carter said. “The kids get strong historical role models and stories that teach them a lot about life. You actually feel good spending the money.”
The Baffler, #15, an article by Terri Kapsalis that offers up some of the same observations of the American Girl Place (does she read FreshMeat?) but brings in an interesting comparison to the way prospective mothers interact with the catalogs of sperm donors.