Mattel (NASDAQ:MAT) is in a funk. The reeling toymaker is hoping that an interactive Barbie doll will be the ticket to a rebound this upcoming holiday season, showing off a prototype of Hello Barbie at the North American International Toy Fair in New York earlier this year.
We have seen chatty Barbie dolls before, but this is the first one that is actually interactive. Using voice recognition software and Wi-Fi connectivity, Barbie can carry on a reasonably fluid conversation.
Smartphone owners know all about Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. Even Amazon has joined the fray with the recent rollout of Amazon Echo. Why not put all of that technology together into an iconic doll line that could use a bit of a boost? That is Hello Barbie in a nutshell, polished with a dash of personality and kid-friendly filtering.
Put another shrimp on the Barbie
Hello Barbie should be available in time for the telltale holiday shopping season, and it will not be cheap. The number being tossed around in February was $75, a stiff price for a doll.
However, with software updates keeping the conversations current and the interface improving, it may not be a bad investment for fans or even former fans of Barbie. It will have to excel at marketing the doll or hope that enough young girls buy one, show off the nifty features to friends, and create a strong grassroots fervor for the interactive plaything.
In any case, Mattel has to do something. Barbie sales have been languishing, plunging 12% during the last holiday shopping season. That follows a 13% drop in 2013 and a 4% dip the year before that. Looking at it from an even uglier perspective, Barbie sales this past holiday season were 27% lower than they were three years earlier.
The market knew that 2014 would be rough for Mattel's flagship doll when the National Retail Federation's annual survey showed that Disney's (NYSE:DIS)Frozen franchise had replaced Barbie as the toy purchase of choice for parents of young girls. It was the first time in 11 years that Barbie was not on top as Anna and Elsa tag teamed their way to a victory over the fading plastic princess.
It has not helped that critics have only gotten louder in voicing their displeasure with Barbie's unrealistic curves in an age when body image and fat shaming have become delicate topics. After a decades-long reign, the public has had enough of Barbie.
An interactive doll is the right move, injecting personality and possibly reversing the narrative. The Barbie on display at the toy fair in February was bubbly and trivial, but if some Lean In-flavored girl power can be baked into the package, it could turn the biggest critics into its loudest cheerleaders.
Of course, Mattel can reverse the narrative here. The doll talks!