Two decades ago American Girl was one of the players that introduced the world to a whole new concept — experiential retail — the idea that a store isn’t just a place to hold goods, but to showcase an entire brand lifestyle. These days, the rest of the market has caught up to the idea, and the brand is slipping behind. Which is why, just in time for Holiday 2019, the brand has decided to reboot and expand the concept it helped invent.
The phrase “experiential retail” has been been trendy for physical stores for the last half-decade or so, and the concept that shoppers don’t come in looking for items so much as they are looking for unique and distinct commerce experiences has become something of a new retail gold standard.
But about two decades before experiential retail became a mainstream idea, it was an experiment that a former mail-order doll company launched in it its Chicago flagship location.
The company was (and is) American Girl — and shortly after the first American Girl Place flagship store opened, locations in New York and Los Angeles popped up to feature the Mattel-owned brand of 18-inch historical dolls.
The stores were a seismic shift in the brand’s business model as they represented the first chance customers had ever had to walk into a physical location and purchase a doll. That was a big bonus — but the stores were designed to be more than a depot of dolls. They were created as a full-tilt product showcase and a way to live the American Girl Doll lifestyle by 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 owner is 8 to 11).
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.
But the world caught up, and the American Girl experience became less a standout highlight and more of a pace with what other retailers were offering. And in recent years, its sales have suffered as a result. When parent firm Mattel announced its Q3 results three weeks ago, sales on the whole were up 3 percent. driven largely by the great resurgence of Barbie, where sales actually picked up a whole 10 percent.
But American Girl didn’t show so strongly — sales fell 14 percent and the only good news to be found in that troubling result is that it was a smaller dip than in Q2 when sales fell 23 percent.
But the holidays are now here, it’s go-time for toy makers nationwide and Mattel is doubling down on the American Girl in-store experience to drive enthusiasm back to the brand.
Many of these changes are coming to two specific stores — the Chicago flagship where the American Girl experiential retail experience was born, and the New York location which to date remains the brand’s most highly trafficked by consumers.
Both shops have a new revamped “doll hospital” for customers to take damage or perhaps just “over-loved” dolls for repair. That feature is not new — dropping a doll at the “hospital” is an original feature of the stores. But in the 2.0 variation, dolls can get a lot more in the way of medical services than was once possible. At the new shops, according to American Girl, there are now a free services including a doll wellness exam with a specially-trained doll doctor who checks the pulse, temperature and reflexes of each 18-inch patient. The area also offers up free interactive play stations, where girls can perform doll eye exams, take doll-sized X-rays, and even give their doll (which does not have teeth) a dental checkup.
A complimentary Certificate of Good Health is given to doll owners with a list of tips to maintain its good health between visits.
As for more unique features, the New York location has built a fully interactive “day in the life” area for one of the brand’s more popular dolls, Julie.
The area — called “Julie’s Groovy World” — acts as a trip back to the 1970s, complete with lava lamps, beaded door covers, an “egg chair,” a vintage Volkswagen Beetle and the charming color schemes of the 1970s that the rest of the world has spent the last 50 years trying to forget.
And while Chicago isn’t offering a chance for full immersion in a character’s life, the location has a greatly expanded “salon” area where customers can have their hair styled to match their doll’s, get a manicure and even get their ears pierced.
“These micro experiences set American Girl apart by creating more meaningful connections between a girl and her doll,” said Robyn Novak, vice president and managing creative director of FRCH NELSON, the design firm that created the new look for the American Girl store. “Julie’s Groovy World and the Doll Hospital are completely authentic to the brand and provide girls with an immersive experience that will stay with them long after the store visit.”
Stay with them, and hopefully keep on bringing them back. Because American Girl, though once a leading player in the experiential game has fallen to the back of the pack, as its sales figures show. The question is whether hitting reset and expanding the experience can recapture a bit of the old magic.