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Little dolls a big deal with girls

Incongruous as it may seem, one of the biggest categories in toys last year was also the smallest. With several major entrées sparking a sales increase of 50%, the mini-doll category was the one to watch in 2003, and toycos are gearing up to keep that ball rolling this year.
February 1, 2004

Incongruous as it may seem, one of the biggest categories in toys last year was also the smallest. With several major entrées sparking a sales increase of 50%, the mini-doll category was the one to watch in 2003, and toycos are gearing up to keep that ball rolling this year.

The fact that the dolls are small and cute does appeal to girls, says Michael Redmond, senior account manager for industry sales tracker The NPD Group. But an even bigger factor behind last year’s sales spike was brand recognition. In the first half of 2003, much of the category’s growth can be attributed to Cypress, California-based Bandai’s revamp of Strawberry Shortcake – an ’80s mega property the company brought back to the toy aisle in January 2003. The sweet-smelling doll’s core line of 5.5-inch Berry Sweet Friends dolls (US$8.99) had finished as the number-three product on NPD’s mini-dolls sales charts as of August, when the company stopped measuring POS sales.

And Bandai made sure the doll was everywhere, launching accessories and a second line of 2.5-inch Berry Cute Dolls (US$4.99) in spring 2003, and working up a comprehensive licensing program across categories including home entertainment, arts & crafts, bedding and apparel.

Bandai’s marketing manager for Strawberry Shortcake, Holli Hoffman, says the company had been watching the doll category, and as MGA Entertainment’s Bratz began to wrest market share from Barbie and drive the fashion doll category up through the roof, Bandai decided the time was ripe to enter the market.

But rather than tackle the crowded 12-inch doll scene, Bandai narrowed in on mini-dolls as a sub-category offering a lot of potential. ‘Girls can’t always relate to fashion dolls or other types of dolls. Strawberry Shortcake is a real little girl,’ says Hoffman. ‘I think they also appeal to moms who are trying to get away from the Bratz dolls and their trendy, crazy outfits.’

Bandai will be expanding the line for 2004, adding five new Strawberryland Fillies (US$7.99) and electronics-enabled interactive SKUs like the Talking Giggle Friends (US$12.99) and a Berry Talkin’ Apple Dumplin’ plush (US$19.99) later this spring. And in the fall, a Singing Surprise Strawberry Shortcake that girls can use to make musical tunes and stories will hit shelves for US$39.99.

After shaking up the bedrock of the fashion doll world with Bratz, North Hills, California-based MGA also saw an opening in mini-dolls and responded with Lil’ Bratz, a smaller version of the original that’s geared to a younger demo.

The Lil’ Bratz Pax, a four-doll gift set (US$22.99) that launched in Q4 2002, climbed up to the number-five spot on NPD’s sales chart by August. And MGA plans to expand the line this year by changing the dolls from scaled-down versions of the original Bratz into their own characters, and introducing a line of boy dolls.

MGA will also be bringing out Flower Fairies in March. Measuring a mere five inches, Flower Fairies (US$12.99) are each scented like a different blossom and come with a pet. And though he was not ready to make an official announcement yet, MGA CEO Isaac Larian says the company will be launching another new line of dolls in fall 2004.

If every race has a dark horse, this one’s is Hasbro’s retro ’80s property My Little Pony, which launched as a miniature toy line in September 2003, along with a massive licensing campaign covering categories like apparel, home video and publishing. Redmond says sales of the My Little Pony range of dolls have now edged up to be on par with Strawberry Shortcake and Lil’ Bratz. Hasbro is adding to the line in March with new ponies (US$4.99 to US$6.99) and playsets (US$9.99 to US$14.99).

Though the three newcomers to the mini-doll field made good headway last year, it wasn’t enough to unseat reigning princess Polly Pocket (Mattel), whose Fashion Polly Splash Fun and Fashion Polly Rock ‘N Pop were respectively number one and two in the August 2003 NPD ranks. And Redmond says Polly still dominates the category, as Berry Sweet Friends, Lil’ Bratz and My Little Pony duke it out for second-banana status.

Stephanie Cota, Mattel’s marketing manager, says it’s innovation that has kept Polly strong in the face of such stiff competition. One of the new items that did particularly well last year was the Designer Mall (US$39.99), which came with dough, glitter and molds to design and create accessories for the doll. ‘There are also a lot of items within the line that we call ‘allowance-friendly,” says Cota. ‘A girl can spend US$5 or US$10 and get a lot of great, fun Polly items.’

Heading into 2004, Cota says Mattel will be introducing Strechable Polly! (US$9.99 to US$24.99), a new bendable doll with magnetic hands and feet that comes with magnetized playsets and accessories. The company also plans to get into new licensing categories like electronics and apparel this year.

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