NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mattel Inc. is using technology to come up with a new twist on a toy launched in 1959 to appeal to today’s Web-savvy, multimedia girl shoppers.
On Thursday, Mattel unveiled Barbie Girls, a doll-shaped MP3 player that turns into a live character at BarbieGirls.com, a Web site where girls can interact with each other in a manner reminiscent of Second Life, the virtual world for adults.
The company hopes the new toy, which brings together Web surfing, shopping and music downloads, will cool demand for rival MGA Entertainment’s sassy Bratz dolls -- a line of big-headed, skinny dolls with scant, trendy clothing.
The world’s largest toy maker is also taking aim at Apple Inc.’s iPod music players and Ganz’s Webkinz, furry animal toys that come alive online.
The official launch of BarbieGirls.com came a week after the company gave it a public test run.
Toy analysts say this latest addition to the 48-year-old Barbie line should be a hot seller, helping the brand reverse nearly five years of declining sales.
“If Mattel’s online community is successful -- with penetration similar to Webkinz -- we estimate maximum annual sales potential of about $100 million, or about 3 cents a share,” Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Lisa Bolton Weiser wrote in a research note.
Retailers said earlier this month that demand for Webkinz, which are sold at specialty retail shops such as Hallmark and American Greetings Corp., has skyrocketed.
Reviving the Barbie brand has been a major priority for Mattel, who has seen her former target audience defect not only to Bratz, but also to flashier, high-tech items such as iPods and video games.
The Barbie Girls music players, which can hold up to 120 MP3 or 240 WMA-file songs, come to market in July and will cost $59.99, Mattel said.
“I think we’ve got a hit on our hands,” said Reyne Rice, a New York-based toy trends expert at the Toy Industry Association. “You’ve got music, you’ve got fashion and you’ve got online -- all these components tied into today’s girls.”
At BarbieGirls.com, users can customize their characters’ looks and styles. They can also go to the online mall and shop for clothes, accessories and furniture for their online room. Users can even adopt a pet.
But more importantly, Rice added: “I think parents are going to like the safe online portal.”
To ensure girls’ safety in public chats, Mattel devised a limited vocabulary of 2,000 words the girls can use on the site, designed to prevent use of sexual language, profanity or hurtful words such as “stupid” or “hate”.
Filters also prevent users from giving out personal information including names, phone numbers or even the cities where they live. Only in private chats with a “best friend” can a girl divulge personal information.
Mattel said it ensures users are best friends by requiring one of them to physically connect their Barbie Girls MP3 player to a friend’s computer.
Each element of Barbie Girls -- from safety to music -- is designed to help Barbie win back market share from the brash Bratz line, said independent toy industry consultant Christopher Byrne.
“After the implosion of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears,” said Byrne, “Barbie seems like this wholesome, wonderful thing now. Bratz really got a lot of momentum from tying into those people.”