American Girl: The Shape Of Retail To Come

Last Updated Apr 11, 2008 1:53 PM EDT

American Girl: The Shape Of Retail To ComeAmerican Girl stores aren't just about selling dolls. Instead, the dolls are part of a stage play that creates an experience for young girls and their mothers (with dads in tow) that is so compelling you happily plunk down hundreds of dollars to remember and memorialize it.

That became clear the first time my wife and I took our then 7-year old to the American Girl store in New York City. The "AG" experience, and its implications for retailers, is beautifully captured in a new Harvard Online post from Kathleen Carr.

As I roamed this pink and lavender wonderland holding the hand of my niece Maggie -- who, it must be noted, was dressed in an outfit that was an exact replica of the one worn by the doll she clutched -- I was amazed. We were greeted by a sales staff dressed like fine hotel concierges who commented, of course, on how fabulous my niece and her doll looked. We had brunch in an overstuffed booth that included booster seats and place settings for both human and doll. Even the bathroom had a holder in each stall where presumably your doll would sit and wait for you as you used the facilities. The store has a doll hospital, a doll photo studio, and a doll hair salon.
That's AG spot on. It's about creating an emotional cocoon that engages all the senses, similar to what five-star hotels and Disney World accomplish. And when you do that, customers don't mind much that an AG doll with accompanying book costs about $90. Times that by three when you add in clothing and accessories, lunch or tea, a new doll do, and a photo.

Do You Want To Know A Secret? I had my AG "a-ha!" moment as my daughter was getting her doll's hair brushed at the salon, the stylist chatting up Emma like they were long-time friends. At one point Emma was invited to a back room to have a sneak-peek at a new doll set to debut in a few weeks. Of course, Emma was thrilled; of course, we bought that doll, too.

In the retelling, it sounds like AG has some slick sales people and a slightly deceptive selling practice designed to brainwash your daughter into badgering mom and dad into writing another check. In reality, the experience felt totally authentic, not manipulative. The parents were happily willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show.

I'm not sure how AG accomplishes that trick. But it certainly underscored to me why the word authentic has come into business jargon as a marketing keystone. And it suggests to me that retail of the future may not be as much about creating a great selling environment as much as developing an intimate relationship with customers.

Your competitive advantage won't be price, or location, or crack inventory control -- it will be the people you hire to build experiences in an authentic way.

Do you have an American Girl story? What retailers out there grab you like no other?

(American Girl image by theotherway, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.