Mattel Hopes Shanghai Is A Barbie World

The world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai. i i

hide captionThe world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai. There is no mass-market Chinese doll, but Mattel created a special Barbie with what the company calls "a pan-Asian likeness" (left) for the opening. One thing is certainly correct: Shanghai women are famed for their shopping abilities.

Louisa Lim/NPR
The world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai.

The world's first House of Barbie opened Friday in Shanghai. There is no mass-market Chinese doll, but Mattel created a special Barbie with what the company calls "a pan-Asian likeness" (left) for the opening. One thing is certainly correct: Shanghai women are famed for their shopping abilities.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide i i

hide captionRichard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide, is in charge of the opening of this multimillion dollar, six-story shrine to Barbie. He says Mattel chose Shanghai because, in Shanghai, "not only little girls, but teenagers, moms, even grandmas had a connection to the brand, really unlike any other country."

Courtesy Mattel
Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide

Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide, is in charge of the opening of this multimillion dollar, six-story shrine to Barbie. He says Mattel chose Shanghai because, in Shanghai, "not only little girls, but teenagers, moms, even grandmas had a connection to the brand, really unlike any other country."

Courtesy Mattel
A wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie. i i

hide captionA wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie. Three Barbies are sold every second worldwide, but battered by the economic crisis, Mattel's profits were down 46 percent last quarter.

Louisa Lim/NPR
A wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie.

A wall of a thousand pink-clad Barbies is at the heart of the House of Barbie. Three Barbies are sold every second worldwide, but battered by the economic crisis, Mattel's profits were down 46 percent last quarter.

Louisa Lim/NPR
House of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults. i i

hide captionHouse of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults.

Louisa Lim/NPR
House of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults.

House of Barbie offers more than 100,000 Barbie products, both for children and adults.

Louisa Lim/NPR
A mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations. i i

hide captionA mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations, including president, NASCAR driver and ballerina.

Louisa Lim/NPR
A mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations.

A mural decorating the House of Barbie shows the doll in her various occupations, including president, NASCAR driver and ballerina.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Even the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 i i i

hide captionEven the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 inch doll.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Even the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 i

Even the plates in the Barbie restaurant are dusted with chocolate likenesses of the famous 11 1/2 inch doll.

Louisa Lim/NPR

Barbie Turns 50

Barbie Takes To The Road i i
David Gilkey/NPR
Barbie Takes To The Road
David Gilkey/NPR

Life may really begin at 50 — especially if you happen to be Barbie.

Every second, three people in the world buy a Barbie doll. Barbie has been a NASCAR driver, an astronaut and an inspiration to Andy Warhol, among many other things.

Now, toymaker Mattel has spent millions on the world's first House of Barbie in Shanghai.

The House of Barbie, which opened Friday, is a six-story, hot-pink shrine to the 11 1/2 inch doll, built around a wall of a thousand Barbies, each adorned in her own specially designed fuchsia dress. Its cost is a closely guarded secret; Mattel staffers will only say it's in the "multimillions," though they stress it's less than the $33 million in some reports.

"This is clearly the first ever Barbie flagship store, where the brand truly comes alive," says Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide. "Girls can design their own Barbie, they can become a stylist, they can do stage shows, there's a Barbie cafe where you can have birthday parties — it truly is an epic center for the Barbie brand at retail."

The store's strategy includes luring an older crowd into Barbie's pink glow. So it offers adult Barbie-inspired fashion, a spa offering pink face masks and — on the sixth floor — a bar serving cocktails, which are, of course, Barbie-themed.

"We have the Barbietini, we have the Malibu Barbie, we have the Bikinitini, a Glamourpolitan, the Pink-me-up," says food and drink consultant Andre Lense, as he dusts chocolate powder through a Barbie-shaped silhouette onto the surface of the fuchsia Barbietini. He cavalierly bats away the notion that men might shy away from the hot-pink sensory overload.

"Wherever there's a Barbie, there will be a Ken," he says.

The lure of the China market was one reason that Mattel chose Shanghai for its first House of Barbie. It's aggressively pursuing developing markets, such as Eastern Europe, Russia and India, which aren't already Barbie-saturated. But when deciding where to place the House of Barbie, Shanghai beat other contenders — including London, Paris, Milan, New York and Los Angeles — because of its strong cross-generation reaction to the doll and the brand.

"There was an amazing connection to Barbie's values," Dickson said. "Barbie in this culture represented a world of possibilities for girls and for women. She's had amazing careers, she has the cars, she has the plane, she has the boyfriend — and she looks fantastic doing it."

But is Barbie facing a midlife crisis? Stiff competition from younger opponents like Bratz dolls has led to a slump in U.S. sales, which are down an average of 12 percent a year over the past five years. Last quarter, battered by the global economic crisis, worldwide Barbie sales plummeted 21 percent, and Mattel's revenues were down 46 percent.

But Dickson says he's confident.

"Barbie, despite the fact that [she] had challenging statistical results in the last few years, particularly the last year, still remains the No. 1 fashion doll in the world, the No. 1 toy in the world. Certainly the economic crisis suggests we need to be much more price-sensitive. I think we've reached a new moment in time where value really truly becomes not only just the speak, but the name of the game," he says.

Here, dolls range in price from $10 to $200 — for a Barbie in a Vera Wang wedding dress. But is Barbie too blond, too expensive for the China market? At a Shanghai primary school, opinion is divided.

"She's really pretty," says Wang Yiqi, looking longingly at Barbie's pink frilly miniskirt. The 11-year-old is a marketer's dream: she recognizes the specially designed $35 Shanghai Barbie and can't wait to go to the store. Others aren't quite as positive.

"I've got one just like this at home," says 7-year-old Yang Fangchen, "and it only cost $3, and she has a set of extra clothing."

Mrs. Wu, who's picking up her granddaughter, is horrified to hear of the price. "People of my generation find that really expensive. It's definitely not worth it."

In China, Barbie's world is likely to be full of impersonators. Xu Quanning, secretary general of the Shanghai Toy Trade Association, says that Barbie look-alikes for just $1 or $2 were far outselling the real doll.

As she seeks to conquer new frontiers in China, Barbie's blond ambition might find itself tested by the hard reality of cheap copies.

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