Posted Date: 24/02/2012
By Robert Stockdill
“Our stores are all about making memories.”
It’s a great line from a great manager of a great flagship: Chicago’s American Girl, where the direct mail concept of selling books and dolls to young girls is brought to life in a stunning, engaging retail environment.
Jeff Freeman, senior VP of operations and retail with American Girl, perfectly sums up the concept and culture of what is a unique idea internationally - one many have tried to emulate but none have really succeeded at.
The brand’s core dates back 25 years to a mail order company founded by Pleasant Rowland, a former schoolteacher and TV announcer with a passion for history.
Her vision was for young girls to become interested in history through identifying with dolls based on historic periods. Each doll was designed with a story that positions it in a specific historical time period. The doll’s character is then extended by books, clothing and other accessories marketed separately.
“The company is not about the stuff - it’s about the stories.”
Rowland sold the business to Mattel for $700 million in 1998 and, from then, the focus broadened from girls aged from eight to 12 by introducing an entry level product range from three to six. Today, American Girl tries to maintain the relationship through to the girl’s early teens.
Some may see some degree of irony in Mattel, parent of the anatomically impossible Barbie doll, buying a wholesome brand with a mixture of history, education and positive role modelling. Yet, under the toy giant’s ownership, American Girl has thrived.
The first retail store opened in 1998 off Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. The new one fills a 55,000sqft footprint - most of the site of a previously shuttered department store. Last year 1 million people passed through its doors.
American Girl now has 10 stores around the US, all of them significantly smaller than the giant Chicago flagship, including the high-trading 42,000sqft store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. They’re now testing smaller formats of 8000 to 14,000sqft in smaller regional capitals.
The first store, relates Freeman, was never intended to make money - it was a marketing ploy to drive brand recognition and catalogue sales. Refining the retail concept did not come easily. “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing when we started out,” he concedes.
But it worked. “We were much more successful than we’d ever have imagined.”
The new Chicago flagship is long and relatively narrow, with a central pathway deliberately leading through the categories to escalators and a large restaurant at the rear.
The cafe, only a feature of the larger American Girl stores, is somewhere grandparents and parents can hang out with their children casually, but the main appeal is as a destination for birthday parties.
Last year the Chicago store hosted more than 150,000 children and adults at parties. Here, children and their parents sit at a table next to their dolls, who have their own special seats fixed to the tables.
American Girl’s business model is based on encouraging early purchase of a doll and creating a long term relationship between the child and the doll, hopefully expanding the family.
This is not somewhere you buy a doll, take it home and sit it on a shelf. Besides the story and the educational value, American Girl encourages the child to look after the doll, as if it was a real girl.
Bringing the doll to the store for afternoon tea is a just potential shared activity. On the long path from street to cafe entrance, there are points to stop for a doll’s facial, a hair salon, an accessories store, and a shoe bar (every doll needs new shoes, right?). Everything is displayed at a small girl’s height.
“At the hair salon, we’re not selling the hair style, we’re selling the talk,” explains Freeman.
A hair makeover by a qualified stylist costs $20, a facial $12. Dolls only, of course.
There’s a photo studio you can make a portrait with your doll - and even your mum if she’s welcomed into the frame.
There’s a bookshop offering supportive advice on issues such as how to deal with the divorce of your parents, or surviving puberty.
“Girls have been facing the same issues, like standing up for themselves, for years.
“We’re the world’s third largest children’s book publisher in the US, but we only sell to girls.”
And if a doll falls ill, often at the hands of a destructive brother, there’s a hospital on hand to help out. Girls can check their doll in for surgery, with a hospital visit costing anywhere from $15 to $45 depending on the, err, ‘injury’.
“Most girls have got a couple of dolls. They never want to give them up. They get played hard, then they go to a doll hospital to get better.
“When they come out of hospital they’re delivered in a hospital gown, with balloons, a certificate of good health and a get well card.”
If the girl can’t take the injured doll into hospital herself, the US postal service will make a return delivery.
“American Girl is a cult, but it’s a good cult,” says Freeman.
American Girl is not cheap - having a doll join the family costs about $99. But Freeman asserts it offers value.
A popular American Girl service is mother and daughter weekends where the store partners with hotels from mid-level up to create a weekend experience. The trips include a visit to the store, naturally, while the hotels go the extra mile to accommodate the dolls with special beds and pyjamas.
“We drive thousands of hotel nights through this scheme,” says Freeman.
While the success of American Girl as a retail concept is based on service, engagement and more than a little theatre, the bedrock is the company’s mail order roots, which delivered an immediate, responsive customer base from day one.
“When we got into retail, we knew where our customers lived, how many girls lived in each house, the dates of their birthdays - so we could customise our marketing.”
Over the years the company has become increasingly sophisticated in its use of the database, its marketing and its relationship building.
Building a relationship is the easy part. Freeman says the challenge is to get the initial buy-in from the parents.
“Once we get over the hurdle with mum we’re right.”
Today, 13 years after the first store opened, American Girl has progressively got more sophisticated in the use of its database and its marketing initiatives.
Freeman concludes that the direct mail infrastructure and the company’s ability to talk to girls in a different way - to tell a story - are the key platforms of its success.
And in store it’s the service culture drummed into the 150 regular staff (and several hundred extras rostered over peak holiday seasons where 65 per cent of the annual turnover is achieved).
“We are all about service and the best service possible.”
First impressions can be lasting, and quality VM can say volumes about a retail store before a cu...
|The new luxury
Baffled by fashion? French fashion consultant Jean Jacques Picart can simplify it for you.
While some department stores are struggling, Britain's John Lewis is an example of one getting it...
|The perfect storm
Retailers will face further pain as the impact of global fast fashion giants entering the Austral...