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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Comments (39)

1. Posted by Dave! on March 21, 2007 @ 9:44 | Permalink

Sort of... I think you're right that AG shouldn't _have_ to support knock-off merchandise.

But your Mercedes analogy doesn't hold up. In this case, we have a little girl *on a play date*. This isn't an adult who has chosen to buy a Ford driving into a Mercedes dealer. It's a little girl, out with her little girl friends. The little girl was certainly not in a position to buy an AG doll on the spot to meet their criteria. Nothing at all ever had to be said *to the little girl*. They could have pulled the host mother aside and explained their policy and come up with a creative solution. I'm sure there is one. Our society accepts that children are, well, children and that we should handle some situations differently.

What was the benefit to AG by refusing this girl service? Did they really protect their brand? Or did they just make themselves seem like a monster for humiliating a little girl out on a play date?

It's hard to tell from the mother's letter how much is accurate and how much is hyperbole. But AG *certainly* could have handled the experience better. Instead of reinforcing their brand and creating a positive experience for a potential customer, they come off looking like monsters who destroy the dreams of six year-old girls over corporate branding.

I'd argue that the incident has done more damage to the brand than taking the girl's $20 and finding some way on the spot to make her feel special. If even a fraction of the mother's claims are true about how AG handled the situation with a six year-old, they need a serious lesson in customer service.

Or, let me put it this way. You drive a Ford into the Mercedes dealership and ask for an oil change. (A) They can can look at your car and exclaim, "That's not a real Mercedes!" (B) They can say, "Oh, I'm so sorry, we don't have the right tools to change the oil on your car. But tell you what, let me call the Ford Dealership and schedule you an appointment, I'll even try to see if they can squeeze you in now." Etc.

In both cases, they don't work on a car they don't sell. But which do you suppose leaves a better taste in the mouth of the person who came in and serves the brand best?

Had AG taken the girls $20 and explained to the play-date mom that normally they would not do this, but they'd make an exception *only* because it was a play date and the little girl wasn't with her own parent to help handle the situation, you know what they would have? 1) A happy little girl with an AG story to tell all her friends. 2) A mother (the play date mom) who was already an AG customer and who now had a great customer service story to tell her friends about how buying a real AG is so worth it, because they *do* care about little girls.

2. Posted by Seth Chandler on March 21, 2007 @ 9:53 | Permalink

Maybe we could be more sparing in our use of the term "horrifying" in connection with youg children, allocating its usage more to things like placement of infants in American prisons, complete with prison orange and no toys at all, or the fact that some families find their lives rotten enough in their countries of origin that they are willing to risk this in order to escape.

3. Posted by anonymous on March 21, 2007 @ 10:37 | Permalink

I have to say that I agree with Dave.

Regardless of American Girl's desire to protect a brand, all they have accomplished is an impromptu example of a ridiculous marketing misadventure. Providing the story checks out, don't be suprised to see this story appear in coming editions of Marketing and Business Management textbooks.

A wonderful example of what NOT to do. Not only is Dave's assertion that the analogy fails to hold up correct, but any explanation that requires that much exlaining is generally worthless, from a consumer perspective.

Of course, I myself am biased. Any business model that encourages classism among children is inherently disgusting to me in the first place...

4. Posted by Dave Hoffman on March 21, 2007 @ 18:32 | Permalink


I agree with Dave!: the fact that this was just a playdate was a big deal in the way I read the story. As I understand, as well, you can bring other dolls in for tea at the AG store (I've nieces!). So there was legitimately the possibility of confusion.

Plus, I don't totally think the mercedes example works all that well. Mercedes subsidizes their service department because they overcharge on their cars. $20 for a doll beauty session, which, for what it is worth, is more than it costs for me to get my hair cut, seems to be a full service fare.

Finally, Seth suggests that I should have used a less strong adjective. Maybe so, although I was really reacting to the story about the crowd's reaction, not AGs.

5. Posted by Kate Litvak on March 21, 2007 @ 23:12 | Permalink

I think Christine is exactly right. The price of an American Girl doll includes the access to follow-up services, just like the price of a dress at Barneys includes the access to their alterations department. Whether or not doll-hairdo services are expensive is irrelevant – they might be expensive, but they seem to be priced at below market, or else the store wouldn’t need to ration those services, wouldn’t have a long line of eager girls waiting for those services, and wouldn’t need to have a policy on dealing with girls who walk in with nonconforming dolls and ask for a $20 doll-hairdo. So, Christine’s Mercedes analogy is right on the money.

As to the mother’s “satirical letter”: does she also write “satirical letters” every time her daughter is asked to sit in coach because she doesn’t have a first-class ticket? That’s a “real life lesson” too, no?

Having said that, if some store employee caused that much grief to my little boy, I might have been tempted to smash her head with my properly embroidered parasol.

6. Posted by pithy apple on March 22, 2007 @ 10:26 | Permalink

"Having said that, if some store employee caused that much grief to my little boy, I might have been tempted to smash her head with my properly embroidered parasol."

The inconsistency between your "logical" argument for the policy and your instinctively negative reaction toward the clerk's actions illustrate the untenability of AG's policy.

Perhaps the clerk could have handled the situation without violating AG policy and without hurting the little girl's feelings, but that type of snobbery that the clerk allegedly displayed is likley (I admit I am assuming this) a direct reflection of the snobbery upon which the policy is premised. ("That's not a real doll.") Hmmm, wonder where the clerk acquired that perception...

Would a flight attendent turn a client with a coach ticket out of first class because the coach ticket was "not a real flight ticket"? I think not.

7. Posted by judy on March 23, 2007 @ 9:13 | Permalink

Dave - AG needs to hire you.

8. Posted by Bob Vance on March 23, 2007 @ 9:14 | Permalink

Dave Hoffman: "Mercedes subsidizes their service department because they overcharge on their cars."

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if the cars are a loss leader for 100/hour shop charge.

9. Posted by Raybob on March 23, 2007 @ 9:14 | Permalink

Dolls? This furor is about dolls?

But the flight attendant would turn a client out of first class with an equal amount of snobbery and humiliation.

10. Posted by Jimmmm on March 23, 2007 @ 9:15 | Permalink

Right on! About TIME somebody punished kids for having parents who are frugal.

American Girl just bought itself an untenable PR hassle. All it takes is one squeaky wheel and a picture of a teary-eyed moppet to turn public opinion.

AG is right to protect its bottom line, but in so doing, has courted potentially egregious damage to its brand image.

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