survives in high-tech world
Chicago Tribune Newspapers
July 14, 2008
He's called Paul Drink-and-Wet Bath Baby doll, and he's
sold with a blanket, bottle, toilet and pacifier. There
isn't anything high tech or fancy about Paul, but
5-year-old Margo seems sure she can't live without him.
"I want this one. This one," she told her mother at the
Toy Chest in West Hartford, Conn. Of Margo's many toys,
her favorites are dolls, said her mother, Susannah Bryne.
It's girls like Margo that give toy executives hope. The
industry, which has had mixed success harnessing
high-tech fads, has been relying on dolls like
France-based Corolle's Paul and Mattel's classic Barbie
to buoy sales in an uncertain economic climate. And, for
the most part, it's paid off.
Dolls have remarkable staying power. Most people can
remember the hysteria surrounding Tickle Me Elmo,
Furbies and Giga Pets, and they also remember when those
crazes ended. Even though many a fortune is made with
flash-in-the-pan trends like Pogs or Beanie Babies, it's
hard to find anything with the staying power of classics
such as the standard baby doll or the American Girl
"There's something wonderful and timeless about seeing a
child play with a doll," said Beaux James, president of
North American distribution for Corolle dolls. Corolle
tops the specialty doll market.
Although toys have become more high tech, doll play has
stayed essentially the same, James said. You undress it,
then dress it, play with its hair and maybe bathe it.
"Those things have been around forever," he said.
But dolls are facing increased competition. Just 15
years ago, there was far less choice, with a selection
mostly limited to collectibles, babies or Barbie. There
was also less choice in toys, meaning these few
dominated the market, said Jim Silver, longtime toy
analyst and publisher of the Toy Book. Now, dolls make
up just 12 percent of all toy sales, according to the
NPD Group, a market researcher.
Today's toy landscape is a far cry from the one parents
of young children remember. Barbie, the longtime queen
of toy sales, shocked observers when she underwent a
kind of midlife crisis a few years ago (the doll was
created in 1959) and was dethroned from her perch as
top-grossing doll by the sassier, streetwise Bratz
But it wasn't just Bratz that toppled Barbie. It was
iPods and MP3 players and all the other gizmos kids want
at younger ages. Silver traces Barbie's troubles back to
1999, when Britney Spears began influencing little
That was also when little girls' tastes in fashion and
music started to grow more sophisticated.
"You can't fool young girls," he said. "Girls 8 years
old, they know what the trends are."
Toy companies are trying to hold kids' interest in dolls
longer by pairing dolls with technology—Barbies that
hold MP3 files, elaborate online worlds and electronic
dance platforms a la "Dance Dance Revolution."
"The successful doll brand will be part of a bigger
program," Silver said.
American Girl is a good example: You buy the doll and
the experience. You can see the movie, buy the books,
wear the clothes and make a reservation for tea at the
American Girl store in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles.
Barbie, whose profit margins remain tenuous, eventually
overtook Bratz and reclaimed her spot as the most
popular doll, though not until Mattel revamped her Web
site and gave her brand image a makeover.
But regardless of the unrest in Barbie's Dream House,
the doll industry isn't going anywhere. There's more to
playing with dolls than simple entertainment, said Chris
Byrne, an independent toy analyst.
"You're putting girls in the God slot," he said.
"They're really controlling the entire world. … It's
necessary, when your life is about 'Get in the minivan;
eat your peas; go to practice.' It's nice to think that
you have a little bit of control over something."
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