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American Girl is considered a pioneer of experiential retail thanks to its iconic stores that were among the first to combine shopping with eating, playing, and all sorts of other -ings. Now, nearly two decades after it opened its first location, the brand is developing the "store of the future."
In fall 2017, American Girl's New York flagship will move from Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center and debut a totally revamped store concept.
The New York flagship opened in Midtown in 2003, five years after the Mattel brand's first store opened in Chicago; very little has changed since 1998. "Our lease is coming due and this is a wonderful time for us to reinvent the American Girl retail experience," Wade Opland, American Girl's senior vice president of global retail, explains of the move. "We’re taking this opportunity to go to a new location and design new customer experiences.”
The focus of these experiences will be "customization and personalization," from the AG Signature Studio where you can design clothes and accessories for both your doll and yourself, to private rooms for "over-the-top personalized parties," to a salon that will offer services to girls, not just their dolls, for the first time.
A media studio is also being introduced, and will be particularly of the moment. Opland says there are plans to hold stop-motion workshops (American Girl Stop-Motion, or AGSM, is hugely popular on YouTube), as well as cooking and yoga classes "for health and wellness" (while the wellness industry has exploded in recent years, American Girl's The Care and Keeping of You, which came out in 1998, may well be a proto-wellness text).
And, of course, no self-described forward-looking store would be complete without touchscreen kiosks that will help you navigate the space, book salon appointments and cafe reservations, and sync up with a special American Girl app.
Though the brand has long been prescient about making shopping experiential, it's even more important in 2016. "As we look at girls today and millennial moms," says Opland, "they’re seeking brands that deliver positive, meaningful experiences, not just products." As he puts it, they're asking themselves, "How does it tie back to me?”
This announcement comes at a time when American Girl is seeking to regain its footing. Last year sales fell 7 percent, with a 14 percent dip in the fourth quarter. In the first quarter of 2016, sales were down 11 percent.
The new location at 75 Rockefeller Plaza will be roughly the same size as the Fifth Avenue location at 40,000 square feet, though it will be laid out on two floors instead of three, with high ceilings and a more modern aesthetic conceived by architecture firm FRCH Design Worldwide and digital agency MJD Interactive. “This store will be the reinvention," Opland emphasizes. "It really is our store of the future, and from this one, we will evolve our other stores over time."
Put another way, American Girl views the new flagship as an incubator where it can test ideas and then roll them out to the brand's 19 other locations across the country, as well as shop-in-shops in Canada and Mexico: “We are going to take elements of what we’re building here, learn on them, make sure they’re wildly successful with girls, and then take pieces to other stores as we continue to evolve our retail portfolio to make sure we’re relevant in all the other cities.”
The new store fits in with a bigger brand refresh customers will notice in the coming year. “We’re evolving as a total brand," says Opland, "and this will be one expression of that."