Pleasant Rowland introduced her cast of historical American Girl characters to the world in 1986 with a catalog of beautifully crafted dolls, books and related products designed to delight and inspire girls. Retail wasn’t on Rowland’s radar at the time, and it was 12 years before the company opened its first store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.
The brand created a scene where girls came not just to buy a doll or accessories but to spend hours with their moms (and grandmothers), taking their doll for a new hairdo in the salon, having their photos taken and dining at the in-house restaurant.
“I don’t think they knew the success they would have when they started looking at stores from an experiential standpoint,” says John Bricker, principal in Gensler’s brand design practice, which designed American Girl’s new Chicago flagship at Water Tower Place. “It becomes such an emotional connection.”
After the popularity of the first Chicago store, American Girl expanded into other big cities with flagships in New York (in 2003) and Los Angeles (in 2006). Recently, the company began tracking sales data from its catalog division to identify suburban markets where it might debut stores, including Atlanta, Dallas, Boston and Minneapolis.
In 2007, American Girl began opening the doors to these mall-based locales, which average 20,000 square feet and house the more popular flagship elements, such as the doll salon and restaurant.
“The whole idea of these brand extensions is to engage the girl in a way that this becomes her place,” says Paul Lechleiter, chief creative officer at FRCH Design Worldwide, the Cincinnati-based design firm that designed the mall prototype.
Bricker says American Girl’s ability to think ahead has kept it viable. “The company is always looking at new things and developing ideas that are more relevant to the consumer,” says Bricker.
With five mall locations to date, Wade Opland, vp, retail, at American Girl, says the company expects to hit other markets with this smaller format once the economy rebounds. “It has the perfect potential to grow,” he says.
Ten years after American Girl first opened its doors in Chicago, the brand moved to the former Lord & Taylor location at the iconic Water Tower Place. The grand, hall-like space on the first floor, with its massive columns and barreled ceiling, showcases the brand’s historical character dolls.
And with 10,000 square feet more than the previous location, American Girl was able to add some new elements, including an Avenue AG streetscape (above right) containing specialty shops that sell crafts, sweet treats (both girl- and doll-sized servings) and t-shirts. “The idea is that she can shop by herself in an environment that feels catered just to her,” says Barb Carlson, American Girl’s director of visual merchandising.
American Girl launched its mall-based format in Atlanta in 2007, at North Point Mall, bringing the brand to the South for the first time. “This next brand extension is more of a celebration of being a girl, so it’s a little more high-touch; there’s more of a giggle,” says FRCH’s Lechleiter.
That vibe is illustrated through a casual, comfortable space that’s a playful mix of colors and imagery. Graphics of girls at play with their dolls and friends decorate the pink and purple walls.
In the restaurant, the flagship’s formal offerings (white tablecloths and all) have been replaced by a bistro setting complete with dessert counter. Large and decidedly girly flower-petal lights hang overhead.
“It’s those little details all the way through that make the difference,” says Lechleiter.
The smaller-format stores are based on a kit-of-parts that allows the brand to be adapted to various spaces, from Atlanta’s one-story location to this 22,000-square-foot, two-level store in Dallas at The Galleria. A similar material and color palette and repeating design elements, such as star and flower graphics, create a consistent message. The large, berry-colored entry portal with white façade and large window bays announces American Girl’s arrival in the suburbs.
Lechleiter says everything’s designed to be touched, from the fixtures to the oversized ottomans near the library area where girls and moms are encouraged to sit and read.
And since the brand expects girls to visit these locations frequently, designers added party rooms where girls can host gatherings with friends and their dolls.
“The power of this brand is creating a mini-anchor for these malls,” says Lechleiter. “It’s truly a destination.”