National News

July 19, 2013

Barbie fights for her life

NEW YORK — As far as catfights go, this is a doozy.

Barbie, long the reigning queen in the doll world, has suddenly been thrust into the battle of her life.

But Barbie’s competitors look nothing like the blue-eyed, blond-haired, long-legged fashion icon. And they don’t have the same old standards of beauty as the aging diva either.

Monster High dolls, vampy teens that are patterned after the offspring of monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, have neon pink and green streaks in their hair. They wear platform heels and mini-skirts with skulls on them. And the dolls that go by names like Draculaura and Ick Abbey Bominable are gaining on Barbie.

In the Maddux household in Portage, Wis., for instance, Olivia, 10, has been playing with Barbie for six or seven years. But she added Monster High dolls to the mix a year ago.

“I look at Olivia and some of her friends and see they’re growing out of Barbies,” says Olivia’s mom, Lisa Maddux, 42, a freelance writer.

That Barbie is losing her edge is no surprise. Since debuting in 1959 as the world’s first fashion doll, Barbie has long been a lightning rod for controversy and competitors.

To be sure, Barbie is still No. 1 in the doll market, and the Mattel franchise is with an estimated $1.3 billion in annual sales. But Barbie’s sales have slipped for four straight quarters, even while the overall doll category is up 6 percent year-to-date, according to the researcher NPD Group.

Meanwhile, Monster High, which is also made by Mattel, has become the No. 2 doll brand in just three years, with more than $500 million in annual sales, says BMO Capital Markets Gerrick Johnson.

In addition to the competition from Monster High, Barbie has had to contend with increasing criticism of her impossibly proportioned body. While the 54-year-old doll has over the years graduated from pin-up girl to a range of characters that include astronauts, engineers and princesses, detractors continue to dismiss the 11.5-inch doll’s frame as impossibly top-heavy and tiny-waisted.

Barbie’s measurements equate to about a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips on a life-size woman. The average American woman, by comparison, is about a size 14.

Artist Nickolay Lamm on Monday posted pictures of what the doll would look like if it had the average measurements of a 19-year-old, revealing a much more meaty physique. The pictures were featured on Web sites from CNN to Time and renewed controversy over the doll’s effect on girls’ body image.

Monster High dolls, on the other hand, although still pretty slim, have a punk rock look that’s intended to send the message that being different is OK. And they’re aimed at slightly older children — adding to their appeal — while Barbie’s increasingly young audience is hurting sales. After all, no child wants to play with anything seen as a baby toy.

Barbie marketed to children that are between age 3 and 9, but over the past 15 years or so, the range has shrunk to around 3 to 6, Silver, the toy analyst says. This has happened because older children are likely gravitating toward electronic devices or dolls like Monster High, which are aimed at kids 6 to 13, Silver says.

It’s a trickle-down effect: The same reason why 5-year-olds who belted out “The Wheels on the Bus,” 25 years ago would today be more interested One Direction boy band pop songs, he says.

“Kids are growing up much faster younger,” Silver says. “A 6-year-old is looking for something a little edgier. That’s the reason why Monster High has had so much success.”

Kim Blake’s daughter Sarah, 7, used to be a Barbie fan, but she’s moved beyond that. She’s getting ready to donate her 3-foot tall Barbie dream house and about half of her 20 Barbie dolls to charity.

Now, she’s more into playing outside or taking Taekwondo martial arts classes and less into dolls in general. That’s a switch from her mother, 35, who played with Barbie dolls until she was 13.

“Her girlfriends don’t play with them any more either,” says Blake, a store manager in Renton, Wash. “They’ve actually said the word ‘babyish’ talking about them.”

The last time Barbie wasn’t feeling the love was about 12 years ago when, after years of little competition, pouty-lipped Bratz dolls became wildly successful. They sent squeaky clean Barbie into a sales spiral.

Bratz dolls were edgy. They wore low-rise jeans, had heavy makeup and exposed navels. And they were sultrier than Barbies. But the Bratz fad faded in 2005, and Barbie slowly regained sales ground.

The same may happen with Monster High dolls. Industry experts say it will take a lot to dethrone the Barbie. “It’s still one of the strongest brands in industry,” says Needham & Co. toy analyst Sean McGowan.

In a call with investors on Wednesday, Mattel CEO Bryan Stockton admitted that the success of Monster High and its other doll brands might be causing some of Barbie’s sales dip. But he points out that Barbie’s sales are higher now than when Monster High dolls were launched in 2010. He said the competition is energizing the entire doll sector.

In general, “hot toys” have a cyclical nature, usually with a 5-year time span, says BMO Capital’s Johnson. This ensures that no toy stays on top forever. Even evergreen brands that endure for decades, like Barbie, have highs and lows in popularity.

“It happens with everything — name a toy, and it’s had its ups and downs,” Johnson says. “At some point the day comes when a kid says, ‘Nah, I’m tired of this.”’

That day isn’t completely here for Olivia Maddux yet. Her mom, Lisa, believes her new love affair with the Monster High dolls may have in fact extended the life of Barbie dolls.

“I think the addition of Monster High dolls, aimed at a little different demographic, kept Barbies alive in our place, since she plays with them together,” she says.

That may be true. In Olivia’s world, the two — Barbie and Monster High — peacefully coexist. Well, sort of.

“The Monster High dolls are like the Barbie’s servants,” Olivia says.

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