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She looks great for fifty-two. She also has a sweet boyfriend, an hourglass figure, a positive attitude, and a penchant for pink. And despite some people who think she can be too superficial or overly plastic, she’s super-popular. In fact, she’s so popular that for the second year in a row, Barbie is once again the top holiday import to the U.S.
That’s no mean feat for a toy that has been duking it out for decades in the competitive holiday gift market. Over the years Barbie’s preeminence has been assailed by many would-be aspirants, such as Bratz and Liv dolls—not to mention such other hot toys as Furbys and Tickle-Me-Elmos—but the old gal’s combination of glamour and can-do optimism, not to mention slick marketing, continues to keep her in the top spot.
According to analysis of the 75 most-popular holiday gift items for Businessweek.com by Panjiva, a New York company that collects data on global trade, the U.S. received a total of 2,598 shipments of Barbie products (many coming from Hong Kong and Indonesia) in August and September, the period when most items are shipped for the holiday shopping season. That represents a 13 percent increase over the same period in 2010.
U.S. gross sales of Barbie increased 4 percent in 2009 and 14 percent in 2010, indicates Mattel’s 2010 annual report, which did not report the increase in dollar terms.
Worldwide, gross sales of Barbie were up 14 percent in the first quarter of 2011, 12 percent in the second quarter, and 17 percent in the third quarter, according to Mattel (MAT) releases.
The secondary market in the Barbie business is also hotter than Barbie’s pink toenail polish. Sandi Holder, president and chief executive of Sandi Holder’s Doll Attic in Union City, Calif., which she claims is the country’s largest retailer of vintage Barbie dolls and products, says, “We have been quite busy,” referring to sales of vintage and current dolls. The company’s retail sales in dollar terms so far in 2011 are up 15 percent, and its auction sales (its primary outlet for holiday business) have increased 25 percent.
In the U.S., this holiday season is shaping up to be better than last year’s across the board. Black Friday sales jumped 6.6 percent annually, to $11.4 billion, according to ShopperTrak, and the National Retail Federation estimates total holiday sales will rise 2.8 percent this year over 2010. Still, after several bruising years, retailers are playing it safe.
Josh Green, Panjiva’s chief executive, says shipment data suggest classic children’s toys such as Barbie, Lego, and Hot Wheels (another Mattel brand) will be especially popular as retailers reduce risk by offering products they know have appeal. His company’s data bear this out: Shipments of Barbie to the U.S. from August to October were up 35 percent from the same period in 2008. As for other classic toys, Hot Wheels shipments from August to October increased nearly 30 percent from 2010, and Lego shipments rose more than 65 percent.
This surge is even more impressive considering that Barbie hit a slump in the 2000s as new dolls, such as MGA Entertainment’s Bratz dolls, gained popularity. Domestic demand for Barbie picked up again in 2009, the year Barbie turned 50. “Like any brand with a 50-plus-year history, we did lose our way, and sales were not as strong,” says Stephanie Cota, Mattel’s senior vice-president for worldwide marketing of Barbie and Girls.
After an effort to refocus Barbie on fashion, aspiration, and cultural relevance, the doll is “even more popular today than ever before,” says Cota. “Encouraging girls to be anything they want to be is a cornerstone of our success,” as consumers buy whichever doll they feel a connection with, from mermaids to movie stars. Mattel has also launched 125 careers for Barbie, including architect, dentist, and U.S. Army officer.
The key to her success is that unlike many other toys, Barbie is positioned as a doll that consumers can grow with, from childhood well into their adult years. MJ Nystrom, the 30-year-old blogger behind Barbie Collector Obsession in Chicago, says she has about 400 Barbie dolls. “It’s about tradition and nostalgia for me,” says Nystrom, whose father built three giant pink dollhouses for her Barbies when she was younger. “I also find many of the dolls very beautiful. The fashion, the hair, the makeup: It’s beautiful to look at.”
Barbie’s position as the top holiday import, and as a top-selling doll overall, is crucial to Mattel’s bottom line. In 2010, Mattel had revenue of $5.9 billion, according to company filings, but it does not break out dollar sales of Barbie dolls or related products. Cota did say, however, that in 2010, worldwide global retail sales of the Barbie brand were $3 billion. The marketing involved in keeping Barbie relevant involves putting the brand everywhere—in playrooms, on computers, clothing, makeup—even on Band-Aids. Mattel says 90 percent of the 16 million girls aged three to 10 in the U.S. own at least one Barbie doll.
Reaching older consumers—who buy the dolls as gifts or as collectibles—is just as important, and Mattel creates separate, and usually more expensive, products expressly for this market. In October the company drew criticism when it released a limited-edition Barbie with a pink bob and tattoos with a price tag of $50 (the entry-level price for a basic Barbie doll is around $8) that some considered too edgy for young girls.
Mattel is trying to reach Barbie’s fans beyond the toy aisle at your local Walmart (WMT). (Wal-Mart accounted for $1.1 billion of worldwide consolidated net sales of Mattel products in 2010, according to the company’s most recent 10-K.) For instance, in 2009 the company launched a Barbie Facebook page that today has 2.7 million fans around the world. Also a partner in this year’s Fashion’s Night Out in New York—a citywide shopping extravaganza that brings designers, models, and celebrities to stores—Mattel organized a Barbie bus and scavenger hunt, an effective way to get Barbie in front of fashion loving-adults (this was Barbie’s third year participating in the event).
The company has to be careful not to go too far, though. “It’s always a challenge, with a pop culture icon. You have to take the good with the bad,” says Cota. In the end, she says, Barbie is about having fun.
Click here to see the top holiday imports in 2011.