So Many Dolls to Sell

07/13/2021

Don’t overlook the doll category as a profit center for your store

Part 2 of an interview with retailer Peter Laudin from Pattycake Doll Company, a 20-year-old online doll shop

by Tina Manzer

Do you think selling dolls is a must for all toy stores?

I think most stores carry dolls because they think they have to, without a second thought about why or even how to sell them! This is especially true among retailers who bought an existing store, or took over store operations from someone in their family. Their perceptions of the products they should carry are inherited. If the store always sold dolls, they will, too.

According to The Toy Association, Statista.com and research from other organizations, dolls are about a $3.5 billion-a year industry. That’s twice as much as plush and twice as much as action figures (in round numbers). And look at Pattycake Doll Company – almost 20 years of only selling dolls online, and every year a profitable one.

What tips do you have for selling them?

Ron Popeil, the greatest salesman of the 20th century, said, “Always remember that America is a gift-giving society.” I’m not trying to be cute here, but the average American 5-year-old does not have his own credit card. That means that every doll you sell is going to be bought by someone and gifted to someone else. You need to understand the psychology of gifting. When you understand why dolls make such great gift, you’re on your way to knowing the best ways to sell them.

So what makes it so special?

First, it’s just hard to go wrong with a doll – 99 percent of kids love them. And dolls appeal to a wide age range. No matter how old a child is, there’s a suitable doll. For a 6-month-old there are first dolls and loveys. Baby dolls are perfect for toddlers to love and nurture. For ages 5, 6 and 7 there are fashion dolls with clothes to change and hair to brush and style.

Presenting a new doll to a child is also a one-of-a-kind gift for the givers! The first few seconds when they hand over the doll and the child reacts are priceless. The positive feelings and excitement created, for both parties involved in the exchange, are unique.

What benefits of doll play should retailers point out to parents and other gift givers?

edplay readers – professional play experts all – are well aware of and understand how and why play is important for both children and adults. Everything we have learned about play from psychologists and child development experts includes doll play as well. But you’re right, it does have some unique benefits.

Doll play activates the areas of the brain where imagination, self awareness, caring, empathy, and creativity take root.

Doll play is very open ended: there is no start, no end, and no rules about playing with dolls. There is no right or wrong with doll play.

Doll play travels well. Any location is a playground for children when a doll is in their arms. A child can play alone with a doll, but also with others.

Dolls help a child become more self aware, and help them build self esteem. “This doll is Black and she’s beautiful. I’m Black so I must be beautiful, too.”

A doll is also a security tool for a child. Being held by a parent clearly makes a child feel safe and secure. When a parent is not available, the next best thing is to hold something that helps replicate the feeling.   

Doll play has legs. A child’s interest in most toys lasts for hours, days or weeks. A child’s love for a doll can last much longer, even into adulthood. “My grandmother gave me this doll when I was just a little girl,” is something I hear a lot. I’ve been in business a long time, but stories like that still give me goosebumps.

The role of doll play in developing and strengthening nurturing skills is probably its #1 benefit, especially compared with other toys.

Finally, dolls are a fun collectible, for kids and adults. Consider the thousands of collectors of Mattel’s Signature Barbies.

How do you decide which dolls to sell?

In the beginning of our business, we only considered the diversity aspect of dolls. If it was a Black, Asian, Desi or Biracial/Hispanic/Multicultural doll we tried to carry it. It matched our customer base. But over the decades as our business matured, we learned that we didn’t need to, or want to, carry every ethnic doll. If shoppers could get it at KB, Toys “R” Us or Walmart, they didn’t need us.

We started to hone in on dolls that were not being carried by the big box stores; the ones that were more “specialty.” And no, we didn’t worry if it was on Amazon. Once people land on our site and see how many Black or Asian dolls we have, they buy.

What doll characteristics are parents looking for right now? Are they different from, say, five years ago?

Based on the sales in our store we see big changes today. The biggest is how dolls are being used by Millennials and Gen Xers – parents and teachers – to teach diversity and acceptance. Last year, a big recommendation for parents among mommy bloggers and influencers was to add diversity dolls to their kids’ toy boxes as a way to help raise a non-racist child.

Public schools and Head Start programs across the country are driving sales of our Muslim girl dolls. Dressed in a hijab and abaya, they’ve become top sellers.

Gender is also a theme. Many of the dolls we sell are gender neutral, and if they are the standard sizes – 12, 14.5, 15 and 18 inches – doll clothes are readily available.

Tomboys? Princess Boys? Trans? Fluid? How wonderful it is that a 5-year-old Trans girl can find a doll, clothes and skin tone she can identify with! We’re even seeing “pride” doll clothes.

If a child has two mommies, one Black and one White, he or she will want dolls to match. In other words, if mommies come in two colors, the dolls have to, too.

What did the advent of boys’ dolls do for your business?

As far as we know, there have always been boy dolls. And as far as we know, boys have always “played dolls” with their sisters.

The subject of dolls made specifically for boys is one we’ve never studied, but I can tell you this: back when we were bringing in any ethnic doll we could find, we would carry both the boy and the girl versions. About 15 years ago, my wife noticed that a pretty good percentage of the ethnic dolls we were selling were the boys. She suggested that we should look at that a little closer. What a brilliant idea! We decided to add “Boy Dolls” as its own category. Boy dolls rapidly became about one-third of our overall doll sales.

All that being said, there are still a heck of a lot of people today who won’t give a boy a doll. Do they believe that a boy who plays with dolls will grow up to be gay? I’m not sure. But we have seen a lot of research that says boys who played with dolls growing up make better husbands and fathers.

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