U.S. toy titan Mattel (NYSE: MAT) owns the names on some of the most enduring brands in history. Matchbox Cars. Pictionary. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Polly Pocket. It’s Barbie brand is also one of the jewels in the Mattel crown.
But unfortunately, some Mattel toys — namely Barbie — just aren’t what they used to be. Barbie sales slumped drastically during the 2009 recession and have struggled to bounce back despite a blowout 50th birthday bash for the toy.
Barbie was even given her own six-story outlet store in 2009 to help revitalize slumping global sales. The result? Well, despite some flashy features the mammoth doll house was a flop — and Mattel today announced the site is being shuttered altogether.
Here are the specifics: The world’s first and only Barbie concept store debuted on Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009, and graced a huge six-story space in downtown Shanghai, China. Features of the site included a pink neon escalator, a glitzy showroom with 900 display cases for Barbies in wide variety of clothes, and even a spa and a Barbie bar for the adults. Despite flagging sales for Barbie at the time and a global financial crisis taking the buying power out of consumers everywhere, Mattel thought the timing was right for a big push into the world’s most populous nation.
It was an ambitious marketing push to boost the iconic American doll’s sales in China. But it failed miserably. According to reports, Mattel cut its sales targets by nearly a third within the first eight months, and the store is already being cleaned out just two years later due to high operating costs and disappointing business.
Mattel insists it is not giving up on Barbie as the next big China doll – pardon the pun. Marketing officials are quick to stress that Barbies are still on sale at more than 1,000 retail outlets in the nation.
But the experiences of a middle-aged Barbie in China mirror results in the U.S. Now over 50 years old, the iconic doll is being pushed aside by younger and trendier dolls. In 2009, amid this bug push in China and a special spin-off wardrobe created by designer Christian Louboutin to celebrate Barbie’s big five-oh, sales slumped a whopping 26%. The recession played a role, yes, but toy sales dipped just 10% overall that year.
For quite a few years, Barbie sales have been showing signs of weakness– and Mattel knows it. So much so they launched their own hip new doll line, American Girls, in an attempt to fend off trendier rivals that have redefined the space for young girls. That’s bad news for Barbie.
So is the iconic doll destined for the old-toys home? Or can Mattel rejuvenate Barbie amid this mid-life crisis?
There are signs of hope. Barbie sales rose 8% percent worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2010. And when the China concept store launched, sales in the nation were a mere 2.5% of total Barbies sold. So it’s not like the closure is a sign that Barbie is on the outs everywhere.
But Mattel had better figure out how to dress up this doll quickly, or else the latest flashy toys are going to make it even harder for Barbie to bounce back. It’s all well and good to be a big name with older Americans – but if Barbie can’t resonate with a younger generation in all corners of the world, the doll is going to have a very hard time aging gracefully.