A Grown-Up Barbie for Older Girls


Even as Mattel Inc. posted better-than-expected quarterly earnings last week, the El Segundo-based toy maker conceded yet another disappointing quarter for the aging Barbie brand, Mattel’s biggest product line with more than $1.5 billion in annual sales.

This time, however, the company is quietly readying its boldest efforts yet to help bring Barbie out of her slump.

During a conference call last week with investors, Chief Executive Robert Eckert mentioned My Scene as one of the product lines the company hopes will lead it to a more positive second half of the year.


It was a public statement about a line the company has been hesitant to discuss: a new group of teenage Barbies that Mattel is setting apart from the rest of the Barbie line to try to recapture 9- to 12-year-old girls, most of whom have long since tossed Barbie to their little sisters.

My Scene dolls, which Mattel said will be out in time for the holiday season, sport trendier fashions, more modern-looking facial features and an un-Barbie-like color scheme--think burgundy rather than bubble gum pink--on everything from packaging to makeup.

But grabbing an older girl’s attention is a tough game, toy industry experts said, and Mattel may be unable to win. Girls who years ago played with Barbie dolls have moved on to music, computers and other sophisticated playthings and may never return to Barbie’s world.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges facing the toy industry: How do we continue to attract the 8- to 12-year-old girl?” said Michael Glazer, chief executive of KB Toys Inc., a chain of 1,400 stores across the country. “We don’t have a problem attracting the boys because you have action figures and then you have video games. The tough one is the girl who at 8 years old says, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead with a Barbie.’ What do we have in our stores that keeps her coming in?”

Years ago, girls as old as 12 played with Barbie and the doll’s friends, cars, homes and other accessories. But as 12-year-olds grew more sophisticated, the dolls quickly moved down the age range, settling to today’s target Barbie audience of 3- to 5-year-olds.

That makes Mattel’s task of trying to retain the attention of older girls nearly impossible, because even 6- and 7-year-old girls now think of the doll as babyish.

“I think there is a market for these types of products with girls who aren’t necessarily out of the toy phase of their lives,” said Chris Cox, an analyst with Goldman Sachs in New York. “But it’s tough. There are a lot of other influences competing for girls of that age.”

Mattel’s plan is to offer highly differentiated Barbie doll lines for different-aged girls, analysts said. For the 5- to 7-year-old girl, Mattel said it plans next year to introduce “Happy Family,” a line designed to appeal to that age group’s desire for nurturing play.

Featuring a pregnant Midge, one of Barbie’s longtime friends who years ago married Allen, the doll line will have accessories such as the baby, a crib and swing--and a magnetic extended stomach, so that Midge can be “unpregnant” when the baby arrives.

My Scene is targeted at the next age group up. Working models of the dolls come in very un-Barbie-like packaging with muted tones and downplayed references to the Barbie line. And rather than Barbie’s more wholesome fare, the Scene dolls wear the kind of edgy fashions that many preteens would like to wear: furry jackets, platform shoes, belly chains and imitation leather pants.

The message is, one analyst said, that this is not your little sister’s Barbie.

Although analysts said it’s the company’s best effort yet at wooing an older audience, some added that it could be a reach.

“I’d be hard-pressed to see a 10-year-old girl playing with Barbie,” said Brian McGough, an analyst with Morgan Stanley in New York. “By shooting that high, though, they might be able to get a 7- or 8-year-old.”

Mattel has been able to retain some of the older girls with new products such as the singing Diva Starz dolls, the more expensive, historical American Girl doll line and the write-on-wipe-off What’s Her Face group of figures. But most can’t make up for sales declines in the incredibly lucrative Barbie line, which at 43 years old is an almost pure profit center for its parent company.

“They’ve done a great job of segmenting the line to compensate for Barbie’s weakness,” said Jill Krutick, an analyst with Salomon Smith Barney in New York. “But Barbie needs to see a recovery to compensate for weakness that will inevitably occur in other parts of the line.”

That’s left Mattel, under girls division President Adrienne Fontanella, scrambling to find new relevancy for the Barbie brand, including new licensed clothing and accessories.

Mattel has made some attempts in recent years to preach the Barbie gospel to older girls. Those efforts included Jewel Girl, with stick-on faux gems for the girl and the doll; Generation Girl, with an older look and cooler accessories, and this year’s Mystery Squad, which includes spy-like tools for Barbie and her friends as well as a mystery--an older concept--for girls to act out and solve.

But while some of the earlier dolls sold well, the older age group has remained mostly out of reach.

In the quarter ended June 30, sales for the $2.2-billion girls division--Mattel’s biggest--were flat worldwide, with newer Mattel products such as American Girl and Polly Pockets dolls making up for a much steeper slump in the Barbie brand.

Domestically, Barbie declined 17% for the quarter, with global sales off by 10%, contributing to a companywide sales decline of 4% for the first half of the year. A large part of the slower sales, Mattel said, was due to a change in the shipping schedule, which will shift some product sales into the second half of the year. Also hurting the brand was a steep decline in the collector’s market, which the company is trying to combat by shipping fewer--and higher-quality--Holiday Barbie dolls.

But those numbers come on top of a tough year for Barbie, with sales in 2001 down 3% worldwide to $1.55 billion. The doll’s domestic popularity fell even further, with sales down 12% from the previous year, well off Barbie’s 1997 peak of $1.8 billion. “We hear at Toy Fair every year from all the manufacturers that something is perfect for the 8-to-12-year-old girl,” said KB Toy’s Glazer. “And there hasn’t been a lot of success.”