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The Retired Investor

Bill Schmick: Mattel’s Barbie gets better with age thanks to a much needed reality check

Barbie now comes in 94 hair colors, 13 eye colors and five body types

  • 2 min to read
Mattel

The author says that buying a Barbie, at least until recently, had parents wrestling with several negative stereotypes. Leading the list was the doll’s image of a whites-only toy that ignored the realities of the melting pot we call America. Then there was the all-too-perfect body, which critics said promoted an unrealistic body image. Consumers took the criticism to heart.

Despite this new age of video games, electronic toys and diminishing attention spans, children are returning to a toy that is almost as old as me. Mattel’s Barbie doll is back and at the top of many holiday shopping lists.

Some of the credit for Barbie’s newfound popularity can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdowns and the subsequent search for things to keep children occupied had mothers remembering their own fascination with all things Barbie.

Buying a Barbie, however (at least until recently), had parents wrestling with several negative stereotypes. Leading the list was the doll’s image of a whites-only toy that ignored the realities of the melting pot we call America. Then there was the all-too-perfect body, which critics said promoted an unrealistic body image.

Consumers took the criticism to heart. In years past, sales declined, competitors gobbled up Barbie’s long-reigning market share and there was even talk of discontinuing the 62-year-old model from the company’s lineup.

Instead, Mattel’s management, after much soul searching, decided to revamp its products to better reflect the world we live in. Taking cues from the success of Disney’s Marvel and its cast of superheroes of every race, age, gender and walk of life, Barbie entered the 21st century.

Mattel revamped its entire product line and produced news dolls with various skin tones as well as body types. The doll now comes in 94 hair colors, 13 eye colors and five body types. But, Mattel hasn’t stopped there. Some models have prosthetic legs or wheelchairs. Ken dolls have also been updated with their own skin colors, body types and hairstyles.

Mattel has also delved into areas such as wellness and has introduced a line of role model Barbies. The company, for example, recently announced a series of dolls honoring the heroes of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 vaccine developer Sarah Gilbert, a 59-year-old Oxford University professor and co-developer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, is one of six women who have new Barbies modeled after them. Others include an emergency room nurse, a frontline doctor in Las Vegas, as well a Brazilian scientist and a Canadian psychiatry resident at the University of Toronto who battled systemic racism in health care.

Mattel has also established a film department and enlisted some social media influencers to help propel its toys into the forefront of popular culture. It appears to be succeeding. Last year, Barbie had its best sales growth in 20 years. The company’s stock price has risen by almost 50 percent, and analysts are expecting good results for 2021 as well.

And given its long history, certain dolls have become collectors’ items.

Barbie debuted at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. Over the years, thanks to limited-edition models or exclusive collaborations that resulted in a unique doll design, there are about 60 Barbie dolls worth as much as $667,757.

The “I Love Lucy” Barbie fetches as much as $1,050, while other expensive collectibles, such as the Coach Barbie ($1,500) or the Christmas Show Barbie ($2,000), are in demand. There are also Chicago Cubs versions, as well as a NASCAR Official Barbie.

Both models are commanding $2,000 or more. Not bad for a new doll that usually retails for under $40.

It should come as no surprise that Mattel is now considering turning its collector brands into nonfungible tokens as the next market to explore.

In the coming months, a Barbie movie, starring Margot Robbie, should keep the kids and their parents’ pocketbooks quite busy into the holiday season.

In anticipation of the film’s release, management has increased prices for the iconic doll, due to higher commodity prices and transportation costs. The company said it expects full-year net sales to increase by 12 percent to 14 percent, driven by Barbie’s new-found popularity, as well as demand for toy cars (Hot Wheels) and other action figures.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative of Onota Partners Inc. in the Berkshires. He can be reached at 413-347-2401, or e-mail him at billiams1948@gmail.com.

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