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Barbie 2.0 delivers interactive experience

Times Staff Writer

What doll has a tiny waist, ample bosom, lots of clothes -- as well as ear buds and an MP3 player with 512 megabytes of memory?

An Internet Barbie, launched Thursday in New York to join the ranks of American Idol Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Malibu Barbie and hundreds more.

Officially called Barbie Girl, El Segundo-based Mattel Inc.'s latest attempt to connect with modern girls is more gadget than traditional fashion doll, a device that plays music and connects to the virtual world via a personal computer.

This Barbie still has multiple outfits. But they’re molded in hard plastic and snap on to the 4 1/2 -inch-tall Barbie Girl unit. It looks a little like an Apple iPod shuffle with a doll attached.

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“I think it’s tremendously important and we’re very excited,” said Mattel girls division President Chuck Scothon. “The doll will always be the cornerstone of the Barbie brand. This is just a great new way to engage girls around the world in a relevant way that they’re playing.”

Barbie Girls will not be available in stores until July. But girls already can sign on to barbiegirls.com, where they can create virtual characters, decorate online rooms and play with digital pets. The characters can roam around shops, theaters and cafes.

They can also play games to earn “B Bucks” for spending at the online shops and chat and e-mail with other girls via a system that automatically blocks certain words and filters out real names, numbers such as addresses and phone numbers, and even spelled-out numbers.

In July, girls who get the $60 Barbie Girl will have access to a vast array of additional online features.

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Also available for purchase: additional $10 packs of clothing and pets for the Barbie Girl device, including animal companions such as penguins, turtles and pandas. The pets also come with codes so they can be accessed online.

“The site and the interaction was pretty cool, and I could definitely see a lot of girls wanting to do this kind of thing,” said toy industry analyst Sean McGowan with Wedbush Morgan in New York. “But this obviously isn’t going to be enough to turn Barbie around. They still need good products, marketing, and they still have to worry about the competition.”

Although Barbie still holds the mantle of No. 1 fashion doll, it has lost considerable market share to Bratz dolls, from Van Nuys-based MGA Entertainment Inc.

Those scantily clad, almond-eyed upstarts, launched in 2001, even enticed girls older than 8, an audience that some thought were permanently lost to doll play.

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In the late 1990s, Barbie sales soared to nearly $2 billion. The company no longer provides actual Barbie sales numbers, but it has since reported almost continuous declines.

In a note to clients, Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Linda Bolton Weiser predicted a maximum sales potential of about $100 million -- if the product and site end up a big hit.

“Mattel did not provide specific plans on how this new platform could be used to enhance sales performance of Barbie dolls,” Weiser wrote, “except that the company believes this new platform can function as a marketing tool to attract older girls to the Barbie brand.”

abigail.goldman@latimes.com

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