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 patterned after the offspring of monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, have neon pink and green streaks in their hair. They wear platform heels and miniskirts with skulls on them. And the dolls that go by names like Draculaura and Ick Abbey Bominable are gaining on Barbie.
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 number one in the doll market, and the Mattel franchise has 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 number two 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. Detractors dismiss the 11.5-inch doll’s frame as impossibly top-heavy and tiny-waisted.
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 between ages 3 and 9, but over the past 15 years or so, the range has shrunk to around 3 to 6, says Timetoplaymage.com toy analyst Jim Silver. This has happened because older children are likely gravitating toward electronic devices or dolls like Monster High, which are aimed at children 6 to 13, Silver says.
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 specialists 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 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.