Barbie does Shanghai

by AFP/D'Arcy Doran, Mar 25, 2009 | Destinations: China / Shanghai

Shanghai, March 5, 2009 - With sales plunging deeper than the neckline of her designer dresses, Barbie is fighting back in Shanghai with a six-storey concept store that her makers hope will begin a new era in her 50-year history.

The store opens Friday, throwing pink at a grey retail climate by inviting girls of all ages to design dolls, indulge in mother-daughter facials and dine at a celebrity chef-run restaurant -- complete with a Barbie bar that stays open until 2 AM.

"It's Barbie, we shouldn't limit ourselves to just one thing when we have a world of opportunity. Going to a Barbie bar -- it sounds fun right away," said Richard Dickson, who is in charge of the Barbie brand for US toy maker Mattel.

Mattel is aiming to position the doll -- which celebrates her 50th anniversary next week -- as a lifestyle brand for girls, bringing together more than 45 product categories ranging from toys to clothes to publishing, Dickson said.

Worldwide, Barbie sales fell 21 percent in the fourth quarter, despite Mattel's earlier optimism that parents would keep buying their children toys through the economic crisis as they cut back elsewhere.

Blond, blue-eyed Barbie may seem like an unlikely fit for Chinese girls, but the Shanghai store is a crucial step in Mattel's efforts to make China the doll's number one market.

Currently, China accounts for about 2.5 percent of global sales, according to Dickson.

"(But) in five to 10 years, China should be the number one market for the brand," he said. "We have a unique opportunity for growth here and we're looking at it as a long-term strategy."

Shanghai, which has a much fabled love of glamour, is a natural starting point, Dickson said, adding women in the city had an affinity for character-branded fashion items.

A pink neon escalator tube transports customers from street level into a showroom at the centre of which stands a three-story spiral staircase enclosed in nearly 900 display cases containing dolls in unique dresses.

Exhibition-style displays showcase dolls from the past 50 years, where women can buy exact reproductions of the dolls they played with as children regardless of whether that was in the 1960s, '70s, '80s or '90s.

A doll factory allows customers to use computers to design dolls with skin tone, hair colour and clothes matching their unique specifications.

Elsewhere in the store, girls can play real-life Barbie trying on life-sized selections from the doll's endless wardrobe.

Girls can have their hair and nails done at a spa or meet with friends in a gelato bar featuring a fashion runway.

The store's most interesting gamble might be its top-floor restaurant run by Australian-born celebrity chef David Laris, which Mattel executives hope might become a centre for Shanghai nightlife.

More stores are planned to eventually be rolled out around the world, but they are unlikely to match the scale of the Shanghai store, Dickson said.

With the store, Dickson said Mattel is trying follow the example of other brands, such as Apple Computers and Ralph Lauren, to establish a direct connection with consumers.

"In the retail experience you have an aisle, your whole experience is whatever that retailer makes it. We have to rely on our product to speak for itself," he said. "Here you're living and breathing the brand."

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