One day last month, some 23,000 young girls logged onto Stardoll, a Stockholm-based social-media site where visitors dress up avatars in fashions of their choosing. The draw for the big turnout: A designer explaining how a virtual Stardoll apparel line had been transformed into real clothes to be sold in bricks-and-mortar stores. As she explained the complications of making a fashion line that had previously existed only in digital form, her audience bombarded her with 5,700 questions about everything from how quickly she works to what to wear with braces.
The event was marketing manna for J.C. Penney (JCP), the department store chain that’s bringing Stardoll’s Pretty n’ Love line to its 1,100 U.S. stores. Aimed at the 8- to 12-year-old “tween” set, the clothes include a $40 white tutu and flower-print legging combo and $20 T-shirts bearing such slogans as “Fame, Fashion and Friends.” The collaboration “makes sense, given what we’ve seen in social media and given how much more interactive consumers want to be,” says Erika K. Maschmeyer, a retail analyst at Robert W. Baird. “This is the next wave.”
Invented by a retired Finnish cleaning woman, five-year-old Stardoll operates much like a real-world fashion business, with its designers combing the world for trends and constantly updating the collections its young fashionistas use to play online dress-up. The main difference, says Chief Executive Officer Mattias Miksche, is that “we’re used to same-day delivery.” Stardoll devotees, for example, were busily dressing their avatars in Kate Middleton’s wedding dress the same day she married Prince William in April. With 123 million registered users, the free site makes money selling ads and enhanced memberships that feature extra content.
Miksche realized Stardoll should branch out after getting overtures from merchants. “We knew we had built a great site,” he says. “That we had built such a strong brand was something that we were not really aware of ourselves.” Stardoll made a limited foray into the corporeal a year ago when it worked with Burger King to produce a paper doll dress-up game for kids’ meals. Penney had advertised on the site, and its managers had personal ties with Stardoll execs, Miksche says, so his company approached the retailer about starting its clothing line.
Syndi Stark, Penney’s divisional vice-president of children’s apparel, says the chain wanted to be more interactive and was hunting for a way to connect with younger customers. Penney had earlier advertised its then teen-oriented Olsenboye clothing line on the Stardoll site, where reaction hinted that the brand would play better with younger girls. So Penney moved the line into its children’s division. Using Stardoll as a kind of focus group, says Stark, “allows you to get a lot of information from a variety of sources.”
To translate the imagined into the actual, Stardoll and Penney worked with a design firm and made some of the clothes more age-appropriate for 8-to-12-year-olds—lengthening skirts, raising necklines, adding lining to sheer fabrics. The Pretty n’ Love line is now for sale in Penney stores, where tags direct shoppers to Stardoll; the clothes are also featured on the site. Penney says sales are especially strong online, and in October will launch a second Stardoll collection, the Latin-influenced Rio Chicas.
Stardoll is talking to other retailers about similar arrangements and has created a line of dolls with Mattel (MAT) that will debut this fall. “We release stuff in our virtual shop every day,” Miksche says. “Obviously, now we have to deal with the limitations of the real world.”