In Shanghai, Never Too Old for Barbie

The Barbie Shanghai flagship store is meant to appeal to urban professional women, who are less concerned than male counterparts about price.
The Barbie Shanghai flagship store is meant to appeal to urban professional women, who are less concerned than male counterparts about price. (By Eugene Hoshiko -- Associated Press)
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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 6, 2009

SHANGHAI -- Jiang Xiaoyun stared wide-eyed at the pink cupcakes, pink T-shirts, pink purses and pink dolls in the towering new six-story Barbie flagship store and declared the place a dream come true.

"I just thought, 'Wouldn't this be great if this was my home?' " Jiang gushed as she and her cousin snapped photos of themselves with mannequins and talked about how wonderfully "princess-y" everything was.

In the United States, Barbies and Barbie products are considered toys and are marketed primarily for girls 8 years old or younger. Not so in China.

Jiang, a 23-year-old administrative assistant, was part of a crowd of 20- and 30-something women who mobbed the newly opened Barbie store on a recent weekend. Few were there for the dolls. Instead, they were browsing the store's animal-print scarves, gourmet chocolate from Laris, one of Shanghai's most exclusive restaurants on the Bund, a famous avenue, and a $10,000 wedding dress designed by Vera Wang.

Like many other multinational firms, Mattel -- the world's largest toymaker -- is looking toward the 1.3 billion potential customers in China to make up for slow sales elsewhere.

Winning over young urban professional women in China like Jiang has become an obsession for such companies. Less concerned about price than their male counterparts but with similar disposable incomes and a love for Western brands, these consumers have the potential to make or break a company's quarterly sales.

Estee Lauder has teamed up with Sony to produce a 40-episode digital sitcom that began in December and includes product placements for Clinique cosmetics and other products. The plot revolves around a college student in Shanghai. And Unilever launched a Chinese version of "Ugly Betty" that features a script about the company's campaign for "real beauty." The first season featured 3,300 seconds of the Dove brand.

Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known as Barbie, made her debut at a toy fair in New York City in 1959 and has since become a subject of both controversy and adoration. The 11.5-inch doll's va-va-voom figure has been criticized throughout the years as being an inhuman ideal, but she has continued to be so popular that the average American girl owns eight Barbies.

Through the years, Barbie has had more than 108 careers and has worn costumes from 50 nations. But sales have stumbled. For Mattel, the fourth quarter of last year was especially depressing: sales fell 11 percent to $2 billion while operating income was down 36 percent.

"When Barbie entered American supermarkets, its brand image was damaged. Mattel is thinking to rebuild the brand image here as a dream, a paradise not only for little girls but for their mothers, too," said Sun Yimin, a marketing professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

To celebrate Barbie's 50th birthday this year, Mattel organized a glitzy fashion show in New York and a celebrity party at a replica of the Barbie Dream House in Malibu. The Shanghai store, which opened in March, is the cornerstone of the company's campaign to revitalize the brand.

Located on Shanghai's equivalent of Fifth Avenue, the 35,000-square-foot building includes a luxury spa and restaurant in addition to its vast retail space.

"Chinese consumers barely know anything about Barbie except that Barbie is a pretty doll," said Laura Lai, general manager of Barbie Shanghai. This has given the company an opportunity to rewrite the doll's story. "We're targeting girls of all ages -- no matter whether they are 6 years old or 60 years old."

If the long checkout lines at the Shanghai store are any indication, Mattel's strategy is working. Pan Yangzhou, a 21-year-old who was visiting from the nearby city of Nanjing, bought some blush and lipstick. Tang Xuyu, a 25-year-old Shanghai native who works as an assistant to the CEO of a local restaurant group, purchased a notebook, some chocolates and a card.

Cui Xiujao, a 25-year-old who works for a software company, had bought a pink T-shirt for her sister, who is also in her 20s, and was browsing for something for herself.

"Barbie attracts me because she's very feminine and independent. She's in charge of her own life. And she has many different roles," Cui said, justifying her spending. "But most important are her pretty clothes."

Researchers Liu Liu in Beijing and Rebecca Kanthor in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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