There are few, if any, places that will pamper a doll like an American Girl store. Not only can the plastic playthings snag an outfit and get coifed at the salon, they can also dine with their owners at the in-store cafe, mini-menu in hand.
Perhaps it’s that kind of attention that has given American Girl a devoted legion of young fans, who flock to the company’s stores across the country to indulge their imaginations. Expect such fervor this Saturday, when American Girl swings open the doors to its first store in the Washington area at Tysons Corner Center.
Spanning 23,000 square feet on two floors of the McLean mall, the store features American Girl’s signature line of 18-inch dolls, complete with clothing, accessories, books and magazines that chronicle their lives in various eras of U.S. history. The store’s 200 employees studied this extensive lineup, during their week-long training.
Each facet of the store, from the 110-seat bistro to the T-shirt boutique, is designed to endear the brand to girls and separate parents from their money.
“It’s not just a doll, in which you make up the story, you’re talking about eight or nine books for each doll that tell you about her friends, what she does, what she wears,” said Sean McGowan, senior analyst at Needham & Co. “Because they’ve created a world it’s easier for girls to get immersed and want all of the things that go with that world.”
There’s the $100 doll. Then, the $30 outfits, $7 books, $100-plus furniture sets, $12 facials, $14 ear piercing and $10 to $20 hairdos.
This array of products and services grossed American Girl $486.6 million in sales in 2010, up 5 percent from the prior year. There were some minor dips in sales during the recession, but the company largely weathered the storm.
American Girl pushes a message of empowerment through self-acceptance, education and friendship. Its dolls, with their pudgy cheeks and big round eyes, revel in the innocence of childhood, rather than flaunt the trappings of womanhood, like Barbies and Bratz.
Pleasant Rowland, a former schoolteacher, started American Girl in 1986 to educate girls through play. That mission evolved into a magazine, movies and a contemporary line of dolls.
“Part of Pleasant’s vision was to have girls touch, feel and experience the products, which is how the first store in Chicago came about,” said Wade Opland, American Girl vice president of retail. Mattel, the maker of Barbie, bought American Girl for $700 million as that store was coming together in 1998. The deal propelled the growth of the product lines, analysts say.
McGowan said the contemporary collection and the annual release of a new “Girl of the Year” doll has helped keep the brand fresh, and relevant overseas. Yet it has been slow to catch on outside of the United States, though McGowan see potential in emerging markets, such as Brazil or India, with booming middle classes.
To date, American Girl has sold nearly 20 million dolls and 135 million books in its 25 -year history. The company plans to celebrate that anniversary all year with in-store events, deluxe-edition DVDs and even a Caribbean cruise.
Events for the Tysons opening won’t be that grand, though visitors can expect free activities, gifts, raffles for a starter collection, face painting and more.