Posted on

Too Many Dolls – Is American Girl Overextending Itself?

Overexpansion – Too Many New Products

This past year or so has been release after release for Amerian Girl – far more so than in previous years. Just off the top of our head, here’s what AG has recently added to its collection:

1. Two new Truly Me dolls (#65 & #66)
2. New outfits & accessories for Truly Me, Bitty Baby, & ALL of the historical doll line (that’s a lot at once!)

3. The new 15″ Wellie Wisher line (5 new dolls)

4. New Historical Character, Nanea

5. Tenney Grant & Logan Everett (contemporary line)

6. The usual Doll of the Year, Gabriela

7. Suzie “Z” Yang and the Z. Crew (contemporary line)

8. Rerelease Historical Doll Felicity

9. The Mega Construx Line with mini-Wellie Wishers

While as a consumer you may be excited at all of the new products, introducing a whole lot of new products at once opens a business to instability. Each of these new products – particularly the new lines like Wellie Wishers and the Contemporary Line – involves millions of dollars in research and development, design, and production. As such, they each carry some financial risk for the company to launch. The more products launching at once, the more financial risk accumulates. In addition, the new products may compete with themselves or earlier products instead of adding to the company’s overall growth.

Take for example a five year old. Previously, you might have bought her an American Girl Doll Samantha as her first real doll for $115. Now, though, there are Wellie Wishers, which are only $60 so you get that instead – losing the company $55. American Girl may be hoping that you buy Samantha in a year or two so that they can capture two sales and instead gain an additional $60 in sales. But, it may turn out that the five year old loves her Wellie Wisher and doesn’t want Samantha, or that you will have bought her a new doll anyways in a year so they still have lost that $55.

Now take a nine year old with two AG dolls already. AG has released six new dolls since the last time she got a doll. You obviously aren’t going to buy her all six new dolls. She gets to choose one doll. Those six new dolls are all competing for that one new sale, plus all of the original dolls that haven’t been retired. That makes 10 historical dolls (soon to be 11 with Nanea), one doll of the year, 40 Truly Me dolls, and 3 contemporary dolls to choose from. The nine year old decides on MaryEllen. All of those millions sunk into the new products, and they get no new sales.

All of these new products and lines are an investment which may not pay off. The market may not be able to support such a huge expansion in their product line so quickly. Consider American Girl’s expansion since Mattel bought it: the average number of dolls released per year was 2.08 over the last 12 years. There are now 6 normal AG dolls released in 2017, plus all of the other developments.

Of course, AG will get some sales. Collectors – like the people who read this blog – will probably buy all the new dolls and their collections before they are retired. But sales to collectors cannot support the entire business.

Declining Quality

We’ve also been closely following American Girl’s trend of changing the dolls to make them cheaper. There was quite a bit of controversy when AG announced that they would be selling all but a few of their Historical dolls with sewn-in underwear. After lots of comments, American Girl released a statement that part of the reason for this was to save costs. No surprise there. In May the company reversed its decision and decided to stick with removable underwear.

Changes to the interior of the doll, while not widely publicized, are likely for the same reason. This includes zip ties instead of neck strings and the elimination of metal fasteners. We’ve also noticed that customers are receiving less and less when receiving new a doll – Truly Me no longer comes with charms or an activity guide, Logan comes without a book, Meet Outfits are containing fewer pieces, and non-historical line hair is becoming thinner.

Overcommercialization of a “Luxury” Line

American Girl has also opened up its distribution line to get more products in more stores locally. It is testing selling AG dolls and accessories at Toys R Us and Kohl’s. While ideally this gets their products in front of more consumers, and therefore generates more sales, there is also a downside. Part of what makes American Girl so desirable is the perception of quality and exclusivity; they sell a “luxury” doll product. Every girl wanted one, but not every girl got one. If you did get one, you treasured her and saved her to pass her down to your sister, daughter, or niece. A trip to the American Girl doll store was an immersive experience and highlight of the year. You couldn’t just walk into Toys ‘R Us and pick one out like you can with a $35 Journey Girls doll. American Girl Dolls aren’t special anymore, they are just another doll.

American Girl Dolls have their own section of the Toys ‘R Us and Kohl’s stores, so they aren’t lined up side-by-side with other play dolls. However, it is very easy to price compare two dolls when they are 10 feet apart. It is hard to justify spending $115 on a luxury doll when a similar looking doll is right in the same store for $40 or less. Same goes for the clothing and accessories.

They’ve Tried It Before

American Girl has introduced similar product lines before without great success. Compare the Wellie Wishers to Hopsocotch Hill, Dolls of Many Lands, and Angelina Ballerina. All of these resemble Wellie Wishers and have been retired or sold off due to poor sales and lack of interest.

Furthermore, American Girl retired the Bitty Twins in 2016 to make room for the Wellie Wishers – which might have been a mistake. The Bitty Twin line was first released in 2003 and redesigned in 2006 to look like toddlers, and sold well enough to last fourteen years. With the difference in age range (Bitty Twins for age 3+ and Wellie for 5+) AG seems to be undercutting itself. Personally, we would have replaced Bitty Baby with Bitty Twins, since there isn’t much to differentiate a Bitty Baby from any other cheaper baby doll. 

Then we have American Girl Doll Caroline from the Historical Line. Caroline was released in 2012 and retired in 2015 – only a three year run. The original 3 dolls were out for 20+ years, and then re-released. Josefina, Kaya, Addy, and Kit have yet to be retired, and have been out for at least 15 years. Even Julie and Rebecca have been around for a respectable 8+ years and still going strong. Rumor has it that Caroline was a failure in part because she had such an expensive collection, she didn’t have a great storyline, and there were copyright issues in Canada.

Caroline shows us that not every Historical Doll launched will do well. Low demand will result in low profits and quick retirements to stem the bleeding.

Conclusion

It is possible that all of the new American Girl releases will do well and the company’s profits will grow considerably. However, the financial risk associated with having so many new releases makes us nervous. Their track record is not great outside their Bitty Baby and normal AG doll lines. They are also facing issues with cut corners leading to declining quality.

We are hoping that everything will work out, but we wouldn’t be surprised if we see signs of financial instability in the next few years. Since American Girl is privately owned, they don’t have public stock for us to track. Therefore, signs of instability will be more subtle. This might be manifested in the fast retirements of these new dolls / lines, a high rate of retirement of more established dolls, fewer AG stores opening, no raises for store employees, changes in company leadership, and further alterations in doll composition.

Update

American Girl has already pulled back some of their changes. They have reversed their decision on including sewn-in underwear in their dolls. They have also decided to go back to their original boxes, instead of continuing to print the very nice but very heavily inked and detailed boxes used by Tenney and Logan. They have also retired some of the Just Like Me dolls.

6 thoughts on “Too Many Dolls – Is American Girl Overextending Itself?

  1. Minor correction to above article: Mattel bought the American Girl doll line in1998. This might be the reason they are overexpanding the American Girl doll line.

    Why? Look at the many versions of Mattel’s Barbie doll out there!

    Mattel wants to sell as many versions of the same doll to each girl…as possible. (My daughter used to own several Barbie dolls…probably you or your daughter/granddaughter owns several also.) However most Barbies are cheap…I even found a few Barbies at $4…in 1990s…the same price I paid for my Barbie in 1960s. Even collectible Barbies might be as cheap as $30-40.

    However, I agree with the basic premise in the article above. Mattel might be overexpanding the much more costly American Girl doll line and may thus undercut its own sales.

    The Wellie dolls may be the only choice of some girls…since they have the best young girl doll face I remember ever seeing…and a whimsical set of charming outfits… As the article suggests, some girls might not ever want to acquire an 18″ American girl doll later…they might stop at Wellies.

    Also…there are some quality 18″ girl doll alternatives…from 1/4 to 1/2 the price of American Girl dolls.

    My favorite is the 18″ girl doll with the vinyl shoulders and upper chest…since it’s muchmore attractive than the cloth body lower neck and shoulders which has a “feedsack” look. Madame Alexander doll line…and a similar Walmart doll line offer the nicest ones I personally have seen. The Walmart version is about $27 currently…and at Walmart one can find many attractive clothes/accessories/furniture etc. for these dolls at moderate prices.

    Also…I wonder…how many young girls will more easily transition from a smaller Wellie all vinyl/plastic doll to an 18″ “knockoff” doll with the vinyl shoulders…? These dolls look so much better in bathing suits, scoop neck shirts/dresses than the upper cloth body American girl dolls. And for the $115 American girl doll price, one could get not only a nice 18″ doll but several accessories, clothes etc.

    Some even suggest buying a wig for the 18″ girl doll “knockoff” …which brings the knockoff doll quite close to American Girl dolls in quality/appearance.

    Hoping Mattel AG doll line managers meet and overcome these challenges…as the AG doll line is still worthwhile…up to a point.

  2. Wow, how can you say Caroline has a poor storyline? We just had 25 girls read it and they all loved the series! They were surprised, so perhapsthey read blogs like this? It’s funny because at The Grove store most of the salespeople like Carolines and Addies books the best!

  3. American girl dolls are ridiculous. I don’t like them that much anymore. first of all, their eyes look all boxy and square. they don’t look realistic, their eyes usually look plain and boring. I wish their eyes were almond shaped, like real eyes. when you part their hair or give them a high ponytail, you can see some hair that looks really strange and I think its supposed to hide the bald spots. the hair comes down below the bald spots looking short and weird. I also hate how the hair is a wig and not rooted in to the head. rooted hair is easier to brush and shows more higher quality. the price is ridiculous for what you get. the new American girl dolls don’t even have neck strings. what am I supposed to do if the head gets lose. just get a new doll? I also noticed how the older American girls came with activity set and how the truly me dolls had more things on the outfit. my doll didn’t have neck strings, or any type of accessory. American girl used to be about encouraging girls to be themselves and stuff like that. now its just about the money. that’s why the price is so high. you can get better quality dolls for cheaper price and get a bunch of good quality dolls for the price of one truly me. prices are going up, quality, down. if American girl keeps going in this direction, they’ll use the completion between all their other competitors, like our generation, or journey girl. American girl is no longer about helping girls and encouraging them or providing good meaningful values. I also dislike them because their so popular. they’re selling them in toysrus, and journey girls will be taken out. ag is too popular, trying to make them look all great but when you actually get them they’re junk. American girl dolls all look the same. they have a bunch of versons of the same doll. stupid. American girl has forgotten how to do quality, just quanity and getting money. they can do that real well. their hair is just a wig. why does it cost so much? if you wanted to fix up your doll’s hair you just buy a new wig and glue it on? that’s it? really worth it. I just like the quality of the hair. everything else is not the same. not everyone can afford that. I remember looking at my ag doll and thinking, these aren’t even that great, why do people like them? that’s because they weren’t always like that. they used to be better, but those days are gone. if you like ag, good for you. but not of me. if American would be like it was 2 years ago, they’d be worth it. people work hard for their money. getting an American girl doll is wasting that on something not even worth while. I like mapelea because unlike American girl they deserve their prices. super high quality. I also like karito kids and journey girl. stick with the good stuff. my first ag doll and this is what happens. bummer. you said American girl tried other things that didn’t work out right? just forget ag dolls and make totally different better ones. this been neonwaters. peace be out

  4. I agree that the reason American girl is getting cheaper to save costs. no neck strings, no activity set, eyes not detailed enough, outfits coming in fewer pieces, stuff like that

  5. they seem like their getting their common sense back, reading the last part of your article.

  6. I grew up with these dolls and even ended up working at one of their stores while in college. Watching the decline of the quality of these dolls has been so sad. You can see it start right when Pleasant Rowland sold the company to Mattel. Pleasant’s original plan for the company had been to create not just a pretty doll, but one that added an educational component as well. That is what made those dolls so different from the run of the mill dolls you could find at any store. I learned so much about history just from reading those books and playing with those dolls and their accessories. They all seemed more special because you couldn’t just go to the store and buy them. I remember looking through those catalogs over and over and over again. Even the boxes had a band around them so it felt like you were opening a present.

    As part of the sale, Pleasant Rowland remained on the board for about 10 years or so, which probably saved Mattel from having financial problems sooner. The accessories that had been made with wood were all replaced with plastic. The clothes that used to have buttons or strings, now all velcro (and cheap velcro might I add.) The Truly Me collection came out and, to me, that was part of the downfall. Mattel shifted their focus to creating tons of modern clothes and then creating new versions of it every year, i.e. there is a new color outfits for basketball, soccer, cheerleading, skiing, ballet, etc. It’s a gimmick used to keep people buying it. These dolls still tried to maintain that “educational” piece by coming with a blank book that girls could write their own stories.

    Then when Lindsey, the first girl of the year doll, was introduced, she actually didn’t sell that well. She was around for several years, not just one. Then they discovered that when they retire something, people rush to buy it. And so began the revolving door of girl of the year dolls. I think that’s probably why they keep retiring and bringing back the historical dolls. But they have also diminished those dolls’ stories. Each doll had 6 stories, one for each outfit and related accessories. Now, they just combine a story into a couple books and takes the fun out of learning about those outfits and accessories.

    So when Pleasant Rowland stepped down, Mattel went on a freefall. Changing the focus from the one thing that set these dolls apart (education) to the newer is always bettter, buy buy buy, mentality, these dolls just aren’t special anymore. Mattel bought AG because it’s Barbie line was suffering. For several years, AG kept Mattel afloat. The fact that the people at Mattel could let a line like Barbie fall to the pit of irrelevance should be a good indicator of the future of AG. What a shame!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *