DIP 017: Experiential retail, American Girl style

PLUS: Umbros by OV, Tums for millennials, and Ikea is designing retirement homes

👋 Hi. Fall (or Q4, as some call it) always feels like the most exciting period in the consumer brand space. Between holiday campaigns, limited-edition products, and pop-ups, there’s a lot going on. I’m personally looking forward to hibernating 75% of the time and exploring retail set-ups the remaining 25% (looking at you, Goodee). And Beaujolais Nouveau season. Lots of Beauj Nouv. As always, reply with questions, comments, or thoughts about anything you read here.

The Chips 💫


The Dip 💆

I walked by American Girl Place (aka the American Girl doll store) in midtown Manhattan recently and was struck by the realization that everything digitally native brands are seeking to do in retail — from in-store exclusives to crafting immersive spaces — is baked into the American Girl experience, and has been for years.

All Dolled Up

Here’s some background: American Girl was founded in 1986 with a line of historical characters. Additional historical figures were introduced in subsequent years, and a looks-like-me line was launched in 1995. There are also life-size baby dolls, called Bitty Babies, and limited-release characters. More recently, American Girl has added male figures and bald dolls to its roster and lists glasses, hearing aids, and braces as optional accessories.

Each doll comes with one outfit, and American Girl sells additional outfits and accessories. All in, an American Girl doll costs upwards of $100. Extra clothing averages $30 — about the same as an outfit for a real toddler from The Gap.

With Somewhere To Go

American Girl opened its first store in 1998. That it chose Chicago as its home seems important. Yes, the company’s founder was born there, but Chicago is also the largest city in the midwest. It’s centrally located, with a major airport and Amtrak routes that funnel in from Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and other neighboring states. By opening in Chicago, American Girl was making its store accessible.

In the years that followed, American Girl opened flagship stores in New York and LA, as well as smaller outlets in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Toronto, and Vancouver.

The stores are immersive, with restaurants, store-in-store boutiques, and even musical theater productions. They present opportunities for both new and existing customers. You can go to purchase your first doll or play in the American Girl world with an existing one. It’s a space that functions more like an amusement park than a store.

I remember making a pilgrimage to the store in Chicago with my mom and sister when I was younger. We spent an entire day browsing and playing. Our dolls got their hair done and we all (dolls, included) had afternoon tea. Years later, it’s not what we bought that I remember — it’s what we did.

Bring It Home

American Girl has done a lot to create rich experiences for consumers at home, too. It produces a seasonal catalogue to highlight new clothing for dolls and formerly created direct-to-video movies and published a bimonthly lifestyle magazine. More recently, it has begun to post DIY and doll-related content on YouTube.

Even its customer service has a twist. Damaged dolls can be shipped to the Doll Hospital for repairs and are sent back wearing a hospital gown. After my sister poked her doll’s eye in, we sent it to the hospital. My parents were not enthused, but I remember thinking it was all very exciting — much like when a friend broke a limb and you got to sign their cast.

All of this is to say, American Girl takes a stunningly immersive, holistic approach to brand and content, and has for decades. American Girl focused on rich experiences because that’s what was right for the brand, not because anyone else was doing it at the time. And in that regard, it may have been most prescient.

Look at what Glossier does with its retail outlets, what Outdoor Voices does with events, what Casper does with its spaces, what Great Jones does with content, what Food52 is soon to do with its store… There’s a macro level, birds-eye view at play. These experiences are about more than product. They’re about building brand affinity.

Still hungry?
  • This semi-viral Reddit post about a woman who messed up her uncle's American Girl fansite is pretty funny.


Real Dip 🐩

Spicy cashew sauce.

Toast a large handful of unsalted cashews. Let them cool, then put them in a food processor along with one smashed clove of garlic, a two-second pour of rice wine vinegar, two pinches of pepper flakes, a big splash of fish sauce, and a drizzle of honey.

Blitz it, scrape down the sides, then drizzle in olive oil until it all comes together. Swap olive oil for water if you’d rather it function as a dressing.

Thanks for snacking,

— Emily 🐣

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