Experiential retail is everyone’s favorite buzzword of late, but American Girl mastered this concept a long time ago. About twenty years earlier, in Chicago, Illinois, the first American Girl Place flagship store opened. Followed in short order by locations in New York and Los Angeles, the Mattel-owned brand of 18-inch historical dolls made a seismic shift in its business model.
Before those brick-and-mortar locations came into existence, American Girl dolls were a mail order-only business. The stores that opened were the first chance customers had to walk into a physical location and purchase a doll.
But the stores that launched offered a lot more: They were also designed as full-tilt product showcases, featuring glassed-in dioramas of their characters in action, bistros for themed dining, doll salons, a doll hospital and exclusive inventory. Going to an American Girl store was designed to be more than a shopping experience: It was meant to be a significant life event for fans of the brand (the average age of an American Girl doll’s owner is eight to eleven years old).
Their strategy was so effective that those flagship stores spawned a wave of boutiques and bistros — similarly designed stores at a much smaller scale — that popped up in high-end shopping malls nationwide.
What was an unprecedented idea in 1998 when the first store opened is now — as of 2018 — an often-imitated concept. Physical retailers of all stripes are trying to lure shoppers back through their doors with a more experience-based proposition.
But American Girl, through its launch of its newest flagship store at Rockefeller Plaza in New York, is raising the bar again.
The New Store
The 40,000-square-foot, two-story location is designed to be a brick-and-mortar destination for the dolls and the little girls who buy them.
The new American Girl store will include brand favorites, like a doll hospital and salon, where damaged dolls can get better and healthier dolls can experiment with a fresh new look.
But the Rockefeller location will also include some expanded features.
While an extensive menu of hairstyle and spa offerings have already been available for American Girl dolls in-store, those services have been limited to dolls. The new store now makes it possible for girls to pick matching hairstyles with their dolls, get a (mini) manicure together and even share the experience of getting their ears pierced. Prices for doll hairstyling ranges from $10 to $20; for their owners’ hair, the charges go up some, from $25 to $40.
The store also offers American Girl fans a unique experience: a chance to design and build their own American Girl doll from an advertised “1 million design combinations.”
Design options include face molds, skin tones and freckles, eye and hair colors, hair textures and new cuts and styles, as well as accessory features like hearing aids, glasses, sunglasses or braces.
While American Girl has upped its customer service game, the brand also hopes to improve its digital offering through the creation of a “Content Hub” — a location for customers to interact with and sample the extensive catalog of media products the brand produces to support its core toy line. Movies, books and more are some of the content available for perusal.
There is also an augmented reality (AR) experience for in-store shoppers — demarcated by signage within the store and compatible with most smartphones.
“Our new store celebrates the joys of girlhood — a place that nourishes a girl’s spirit and fosters her strength of character. We look forward to American Girl Place New York remaining a treasured place where girls can simply be girls, while creating unforgettable memories with their families and friends for decades to come,” said Katy Dickson, SVP and president of American Girl.