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Mattel closes Barbie concept store in China

SHANGHAI, Mar 7, – US toy maker Mattel on Monday shut the world\’s first and only Barbie concept store after just two years, ending an ambitious marketing push to boost the iconic American doll\’s sales in China.

"Mattel Inc. confirms that the \’Barbie Shanghai Flagship Store\’ will be closed on March 7, 2011," the company said in a statement, adding it remained committed to developing the brand in China.

The Shanghai concept store opened in March 2009 as Mattel celebrated the doll\’s 50th birthday, hoping to woo customers in the world\’s most populous nation amid flagging sales after the global financial crisis.

The store featured a pink neon escalator that transported customers into a showroom with 900 display cases containing dolls in unique dresses, as well as a restaurant, spa and a Barbie bar.

However, sales at the six-storey outlet failed to get off the ground and Mattel had to cut its targets by nearly a third within the first eight months, according to previous media reports.

Mattel spokeswoman Linda Du declined on Monday to provide sales figures for the store or China as a whole.

She said the store\’s closure reflected a change in strategy, adding that Mattel would launch a new campaign to expand the brand across the country later this year. She gave no details.

Barbie dolls still remain available in more than one thousand retail outlets in China, Du added.

The closure highlighted the challenges global brands face in China, where consumers are often unfamiliar with products that are well-known elsewhere, said Ben Cavender, an analyst with Shanghai-based China Market Research.

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"Barbie in the US has a very long history, people grow up with the brand, their parents grow up with the brand, so brand recognition is very high. In China, though, nobody really knew what Barbie stood for," he told AFP.

US retailer Best Buy announced last month it had closed its nine outlets in China as well as its head office in Shanghai, making it the latest foreign big box operator to exit after struggling in the fast-growing market.

"What it definitely says is that it is a challenging market," Cavender said.

"For foreign retailers, it is a very hard market to get correct. They either don\’t change quickly enough or they are not patient enough to be successful here."

Mattel told AFP when the concept store opened that China accounted for 2.5 percent of the doll\’s global sales but the company aimed to make it Barbie\’s top market as early as 2014.

Barbie sales rose eight percent worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2010 while Mattel\’s overall revenue increased nine percent to $2.1 billion.

It reported a profit of $325.2 million in the quarter, down from $328.4 million a year earlier.

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