In Shanghai, Barbie’s Dream House Crumbles

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To me, it sounded like a nightmare: six-stories of jewel-encrusted plastic, all tied up in pink. But for Mattel, the iconic American toymaker, the opening of Shanghai’s Barbie superstore in Mar. 2009 was a dream come true. Here, in 36,000-square-feet of doll-drenched retail space, Chinese women and girls would fall headlong for the busty, American blond — and, in so doing, revive a flagging brand.

Or at least, as I wrote, that was the plan:

Barbie’s made-in-China makeover is part of a push to re-brand the iconic American doll on the eve of her 50th birthday. With domestic sales slumping, Mattel has set its sights on China, hoping to the weather the financial storm in the relative calm of the country’s vast — and comparatively untapped — consumer market.

The plan is to turn America’s favorite doll into fashion fodder for China’s upwardly mobile, trend-setting elite. By moving up-market and focusing on Barbie-branded merchandise, the company hopes to widen profit margins and attract a new demographic: Chinese women.

But, will they buy it? (via Global Post)

Apparently not.

Just two years after opening the life-sized doll house, Mattel is shutting the superstore, citing “strategy change.” Change may well be underway, but it’s pretty clear that Barbie pretty much bombed. The company was reportedly forced to cut its sales targets by about 30% within the first eight months of operation. And now, just two years after the glitzy opening, they’re packing up a $30 million store.

Barbie’s retreat comes fast on the (spiked?) heels of store closures in China by Home Depot and Best Buy. Analysts say all three failed to “localize” their product. “None of the three companies – Best Buy, Home Depot or Barbie – have catered to local consumer preferences and habits enough,” Shaun Rein, a marketing expert, told the Financial Times. (To be fair, the recession couldn’t have helped much, either.)

Though it’s early yet to toss Mattel into the ever-expanding ‘failed in China’ file, American companies would be wise to study the case. Mattel looked east to prop up a brand that was losing currency among American women. What they failed to realize, I think, was that Chinese women don’t need — or want — American cast-offs. They’ve got their own dreams.