March 21, 2007
I Can't Believe I'm Defending the American Girl Doll Racket
Posted by Christine Hurt

Dave Hoffman blogged yesterday about a story he found "horrifying":  a young girl on a playdate took her Target knock-off of an American Girl doll to the Manhattan American Girl doll store and was refused the $20 hair salon experience for her nonconforming doll.  The mom, who was not in attendance, wrote a satirical "letter" to American Girl, thanking them for teaching her child the harsh realities of life.  The mom also claims to have been a former buyer for FAO Schwartz.  Although I am generally an apologist for a store that charges $100 for a doll, I'm with AG here.

I've never been to the Manhattan AG store, but the Chicago one is a sight to see.  You bring your doll, buy clothes and accessories (and possibly new dolls), and even attend tea (reservations only) with your doll.  If you don't have a doll, you can get a "loaner doll" for tea, sort of like a high-end restaurant's loaner jacket or tie.  Yes, your doll can get a spruce-up at the hair salon, and your child could even have a birthday party there.  If you've ever walked up and down Michigan Ave. in Chicago, you'll see little girls walking with there dolls and bright red AG shopping bags.  Unfortunately, half the fun of going to the AG store is making sure that other little girls know that you have been to the AG store.  Not a pretty picture, but that's the picture.  And AG knows this, and capitalizes on it by making the AG experience special for its loyal customers. 

Have you ever been to a Mercedes dealership?  The one in Houston is really nice.  They have free soda and other drinks, snacks, and big screen TVs.  The furniture is really, really nice.  When you get your car back from service, it's freshly washed.  If you require a loaner, you usually get a C-series, if you made an appointment ahead of time.  Very nice.  It makes you want to buy another Mercedes, even shinier than the one you have.  Now, I would not fault the Mercedes dealership who refused to make an appointment for a non-Mercedes owner to have her car's oil changed at the dealership, even though the owner would love to be part of the leather furniture, free soda, big TV experience.  Even if the KIA owner was willing to pay an exorbitant price for the oil change.  So, I'm not too critical of the AG dealership for refusing to service the non-AG doll.  (I'm sure there's a smaller argument to made that the hair stylists weren't sure if the non-AG hair would react the same to the AG salon comb-out!)

I think the mother's letter is an attempt to assuage her own guilt for thrusting her child into the harsh world of "Queen Bees and Wannabees" without either the requisite tools for the environment or at least a certain sense of savvy and equilibrium.  As a former buyer for FAO Schwartz, she should have been savvy enough herself to know that her child was entering the intersection of retail marketing strategy and childhood and should have been better prepared.  Surely she doesn't believe that the retail marketers of the world have a duty to protect our children's self-esteem when their parents miscalculate a real-world situation.

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