Once a year, as the holidays approach, I engage in a ritual well known to men of a certain demographic ilk. Armed by my wife with a shopping list detailed enough to thwart paternal cluelessness, I enter American Girl Place off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. And there, amid the madding throngs of little girls and their mothers, I rush to score the season's must-have accessories for Felicity and Samantha. Those would be my daughters' beloved dolls.
It is not my favorite shopping experience. But then, American Girl wasn't created for fathers. And if you are a little girl or her mother (or grandmother, or aunt), American Girl is, at most times, a quite breathtakingly attractive amalgam of education and entertainment, all of it rooted in storytelling.
American Girl was created in 1986 by Pleasant T. Rowland. Her ambition was to create a line of high-quality dolls based on historically correct characters, then bring them to life in a series of kid-friendly mininovels. Mattel, which acquired the Middleton, Wisconsin, catalog company in 1998, has added showplace stores in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and turned the sweet little outfit into a nearly half- billion-dollar business with 24% operating margins.
Our family has been in American Girl's gravitational pull since pretty much the moment our first daughter was born 10 years ago. The immediate appeal, of course, is the cast of dolls and their outfits, which are, as only my wife can put it, "too cute!" (As I and millions of other steamrolled dads might rejoin: At $87 per, they'd better be.)
But there's a lot more going on here. The books (and, now, TV movies) that lend the dolls their backstories are smart, well-written, and surprisingly unsappy. Things go wrong, people die, and the characters test their...character. These dolls are, by design, role models—and they're certainly an improvement on Bratz. Or Mattel's own Barbie, for that matter.
The American Girl stores reflect the same basic values. "We try to deliver seriousness and sophistication that make a girl feel respected and grown-up," says Julia Prohaska, director of brand marketing. The store entrances look grown-up, like little Saks Fifth Avenues. The bright red shopping bags feel grown-up. The in-store cafes do not serve soda, because soda surely is not grown-up.
For many girls, a sojourn to American Girl Place represents a rare, momentous affair; the company says that most visitors to its Chicago store, for example, travel three to six hours. And the average visit lasts a startling four hours. Which tells you that these are not so much stores as they are theme parks, carefully calibrated to create a memorable mother- daughter event. "'This is the best day of my life!' That's how I want them to feel," says Gar Crispell, general manager of the Chicago store.
So the cafes serve asparagus, fontina, and red-pepper quiche—and, okay, miniburgers—in a perky but gracious setting. (Dolls dine next to girls in clever hook-on seats.) A theater offers original musicals based on American Girl characters. There's a salon where stylists work out those nasty doll-hair kinks. And, most brilliant of all, a "hospital" admits dolls in need of new heads, limbs, or just (I'm not making this up) a "wellness visit." Patients are returned in hospital gowns with get-well balloons.
After a $22 lunch, a $32 revue, a $15 hair styling, and a $24.95 photo session, plus a few new outfits and a book or two, of course, you're talking about a doll-stravaganza tab running to several hundred dollars. Not for the faint of heart. Nor, as I've noted, for dads. And that's before the package deal with any number of hotels, which (again, brilliantly) offer turndown service for dolls in their own beds; Wyndham Hotels throws in a logoed doll bathrobe.
All of which is to admit that American Girl has very thoughtfully nailed the details. Its store concierges lend Game Boy players to brothers who otherwise would be bored out of their minds. Packages shipped home bear no branding, to preserve the surprise. The stores may be mobbed, but employees actually pay attention. And the girls love it. "Everyone has taken such good care of us," enthused one mom as I left the Chicago store. "This has been the best day!"
- 3-6hrs. | Typical travel time for most visitors
- 4hrs. | Average length of visit
- $255 | Price for daylong package for mother and daughter, including meal, revue, and $120 spending money
- 1.5 million | Visitors each year to American Girl Place in Chicago
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.