LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
She has been a NASCAR driver, an astronaut, and an inspiration to Andy Warhol. Every second, three people in the world buy her. Were talking about Barbie, of course. Next week she turns 50, and today her toy maker, Mattel, is opening the worlds first House of Barbie, in Shanghai. NPRs Louisa Lim got a sneak preview of the store, and finds that perhaps life does begin at 50.
LOUISA LIM: Im now inside the House of Barbie, which is a six-story temple to the plastic doll, and Im here with Richard Dickson, the general manager of Barbie Worldwide. So Richard, tell me bit about this place.
Mr. RICHARD DICKSON (General Manager, Barbie Worldwide): Well, this is clearly the first-ever Barbie flagship store, where the brand truly comes alive. Girls can design their own Barbie, they can become a stylist, they can do stage shows, there's a Barbie cafe where you could have birthday parties; it truly is an epic center for the Barbie brand at retail.
LIM: The store's strategy includes luring an older crowd into Barbie's pink glow. So it offers adult Barbie-inspired fashion, a spa providing pink face masks, and on the sixth floor a bar serving you guessed it - Barbie-themed cocktails. Andre Lense is the food and drink consultant.
Mr. ANDRE LENSE (Consultant): We have the Barbietini, we have the Malibu Barbie, we have the Bikinitini, a Glamourpolitan, a Pink-Me-Up. These are just some of our specials.
LIM: Im guessing the Barbeitini is pink?
Mr. LENSE: Of course, of course.
LIM: So might it be difficult tempting man to come into this palace of pink?
Mr. LANSE: I dont think so. Wherever there's a Barbie, there will be a Ken.
LIM: The heart of this epic experience is a wall of a thousand Barbies, adorned in a thousand different sequined, feathered, hot-pink dresses. But is Barbie facing a midlife crisis? Stiff competition from younger opponents like Bratz dolls has led to a slump in U.S. sales, 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. But Richard Dickson is confident.
Mr. DICKSON: Barbie, despite the fact that it had challenging statistical results in the last few years, particularly the last year, it still remains the number one fashion doll in the world, the number one toy in the world. Certainly, the economic crisis suggests that 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.
LIM: 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 Shanghai market? Ive come to a Shanghai primary school to find out what Chinese girls think.
Ms. WAND VIQI (Student): (Speaking foreign language)
LIM: Shes really pretty, says Wand Viqi, looking longingly at Barbie's pink, frilly miniskirt. The 11-year-old is a marketer's dream. She recognizes the specially designed, $45 Shanghai Barbie and can't wait to go to the store. Others aren't quite as positive.
Ms. YANG FANGCHEN (Student): (Speaking foreign language)
LIM: 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.
(Soundbite of Barbie commercial)
LIM: Here, Barbie's world is likely to be full of impersonators. One toy industry analyst told NPR copies for just $1 or $2 were far outselling real Barbies. As she seeks to conquer new frontiers in China, Barbie's blond ambition might find itself tested by the hard reality of cheap copies.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
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