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Hourglass figures: After 54 years, Barbie sales are slipping away

Barbie dolls sit on a display before the Barbie house opening ceremony in Shanghai on March 6, 2009.


Cristiana and Jessica Martins have a teacher Barbie doll, a doctor Barbie, a Barbie dentist, and a hairstylist Barbie – 45 in all.

Ensconced in the doll aisle of a Wal-Mart in western Toronto on Wednesday with their mother, the two girls are on the hunt. But there is bad news for the 54-year-old Barbie, the flagship brand of Mattel Inc.: Cristiana and Jessica – and many more girls like them – are not shopping for a Barbie any more.

Cristiana, 10, and Jessica, 7, are now pining for the American Girl doll, fast gaining ground on the venerable Barbie. (It's only available for online purchase in this country.)

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Their mother, Cristina Martins, says that kind of toy is better suited to her daughters. "Less hourglass, less makeup, the hair's more realistic, someone they can relate to more," she says.

Cristiana chimes in: "Real girls!"

Decades after feminists first called for her tiny, perfect head, Barbie's plastic appeal is melting away.

Sales of the iconic doll dropped in 2012 and continued to decline so far this year, according to Mattel, the latest move being a sharp 12-per-cent dip in the past three months.

It's not the first time Barbie's sales have softened. A major revamp was needed in the 1990s to rejuvenate the brand. And for a decade until 2010, Barbie faced steeper competitive pressures when Bratz dolls, an edgier rival, soared in popularity, said Needham & Co. analyst Sean McGowan. "When Bratz was really popular Barbie really suffered a lot. I mean its U.S. sales got cut in half. It's not that kind of a crisis at this point but I think it's feeling a lot of competitive pressures," said Mr. McGowan.

About half of the latest drop in Barbie sales was due to a business decision Mattel made to shift promotion and shipping of Barbie products to the second half of the year, said Bryan Stockton, Mattel chairman and chief executive officer during a Wednesday earnings call.

The 12-per-cent drop followed declines of 2 per cent in the first quarter and 4 per cent in each of the third and fourth quarters of last year. While Barbie sales are falling, other Mattel brands are going strong, including American Girl (available only online in Canada), whose sales surged 14 per cent.

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Worldwide gross sales for Barbie's competing dolls also in the Mattel family, were up 23 per cent, primarily driven by Monster High, a ghoulish line of dolls made popular by the Monster High cartoon series. "Monster High just got a right formula for kids. It's quirky, it's humorous, you know it's different," said Mr. McGowan. "I'm not sure why, that's a bigger question, why do kids like some things and not others?"

The rise of the more expensive American Girl doll is partly due to the recovery of the economy, Mr. McGowan added. "It's an expensive doll. It slowed down a little bit during the recession, but they're opening more stores and introducing more dolls and people can afford it."

Bratz did not appeal to Cristiana and Jessica and neither do Monster High dolls. "They're scary," Jessica said.

Barbie has evolved over the decades as Mattel has responded to criticism about her unrealistic body measurements and the passive image of women the doll presented, which turned many parents away from buying Barbie for their children over the years, said Mary Shearman a PhD candidate in gender, sexuality and women's studies at Simon Fraser University.

But children nowadays have a larger field of dolls to choose from as role models. "There was a sense that you wanted to expose little girls to role models that were a little more diverse and not so stereotypical, so they tried to make Barbie active and gave her all kinds of activities to do and tried to make her more interesting than a beauty queen," said Ms. Shearman, who has noticed the appeal of newer brands such as American Girl.

Ms. Martins says her daughters are becoming bored with their former favourite. "Barbie dolls are nice, but they've become very repetitive."

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