Is Barbie on Her Last Legs? What’s Happening in the Collectible Fashion Doll Marketplace?


Barbie brand saw a staggering 21 percent decline in sales during the third quarter compared with the same period last year, reports the Washington Post. Does this slump foretell the end of the doll’s 55-year run as the prima fashionista?

With Barbie sales apparently in the “doll-drums,” collectors can’t help but wonder what the future holds for their beloved play and fashion icon.

According to The Washington Post on Oct. 16, 2014,

“Toymaker Mattel reported on Thursday that its Barbie brand saw a staggering 21 percent decline in sales during the third quarter compared with the same period last year. This most recent slide comes on the heels of two rough quarters in which Barbie saw sales decrease by at least 14 percent each period.”

The article continues, “Barbie is still one of the top doll brands in the world, but girls are increasingly enticed by more innovative dolls such as those from Mattel’s Monster High line and high-tech games that work on a tablet or smartphone.”

For many of a certain generation who grew up in a less technology-centric time, this news probably comes as a huge surprise. For these folks, the word “Barbie” is the missing last word in the all-American phrase, “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” And, after all, it wasn’t so long ago that several Barbie dolls were sold every second. But it is in part the demographics of a key group of Barbie collectors that are most likely contributing to the brand’s overall sales decline.

According to Mattel, the company’s archivists estimate that there are more than 100,000 Barbie collectors, with about 90 percent of those collectors being women about 40 years old. From the academic and cultural perspectives, the reality of this collector’s base does not bode well for the ultimate longevity of the brand for four key reasons.

How many Holiday Barbies are enough. When several collectible dolls are produced every year, when is too many too much?

How many Holiday Barbies are enough? When several collectible dolls are produced every year, when is too many too much?

The First is Budget:
It is safe to say that many women in their 40’s have a great number of significant financial obligations that are related to the middle years. Expenses related to rent and mortgage, retirement savings, home improvements, children and aging parents, tuition, pets, repayment of loans of all types, and other responsibilities can quickly absorb a paycheck of any scale. There is simply less money to spend on “non-essentials” like Barbie.

The Second is Options:
The number of ways to spend disposable income has increased dramatically over the years. Choices for entertainment, technology, dining out, travel, home and personal attire and other experiential and consumable purchases seem practically endless. And the efficiency of 24/7 online shopping has only made the universe of competing options greater. Money spent at restaurants, on upgraded cell phones, exercise/wellness classes and accessories, and other popular “personal investments” by 40-somethings is in direct competition with their Barbie purchases.

The Third is Space:
Statistics show that the “average” Barbie collector purchases at least 20 Barbie dolls per year. Consider this: after five years, a “typical” collection would increase by 100 examples! This problem is compounded by the fact that many collectors prefer to keep their dolls in their original boxes, further increasing the space needed. Enthusiasts are simply running out of room in their homes to show or store their collections, which in turn may help to explain the slowdown in new product sales.

The Fourth is Fatigue:
It is quite possible that after years of collecting, the core group of Barbie enthusiasts simply may be more selective about their purchases, and/or are only investing in examples that are not in some way redundant with what they already have in their collections. Or they may be saving up for really, really special editions. This certainly would have an impact on new sales and points to the brand’s need to develop a younger and active collecting base for long-term viability—as well as having an exciting and innovative product development pipeline.

Barbie in a Ralph Lauren outfit from 1996.

Barbie in a Ralph Lauren outfit from 1996.

Barbie in a 2001 Burberry ensemble.

Barbie in a 2001 Burberry ensemble.

Barbie in a Coach-inspired coat and bag set from 2013.

Barbie in a Coach-inspired coat and bag set from 2013.

So, do sales numbers and demographic realities mean the end of Barbie as we know her today? Probably not, at least in the short run. Mattel has a long history of recreating and resurrecting this classic American heroine, and the brand has enormous recognition, equity and history associated with it. Given the realities of today’s marketplace, and the demographics of collectors, one strategy might be to focus on the higher-end product, creating fewer but more exceptional “must have” editions at stretch, but not out-of-hand price points. This direction has been successful in the past. The doll remains a favorite “mini muse” for many national and international fashion designers, who have in turn designed outfits for her over the years. These include Anne Klein, Christian Louboutin, Bob Mackie, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Nicole Miller, DKNY and many, many others. The option for future higher-end, collector-centric collaborations remains strong, and collectors are clearly interested in owning doll-sized couture from these famous designers.

Barbie is also a strong brand for other well-known brand partnerships, especially those with a fashion or luxury good tilt. Very successful partnerships in the past include Burberry and Coach. Similar projects with well-known high-end cashmere, jewelry, footwear, leather goods or other “aspirational” consumer goods manufacturers may be another way to keep Barbie top of mind in the hearts and minds of their core and loyal adult collectors.

Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.

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