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Doll play survives in high-tech world


Anne Vandermey

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 line.

"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 brand.

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 girls.

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."

Hartford Courant





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