The Barbie display inside the big Toys "R" Us store in New York City features a two-story House of Barbie with dolls in every imaginable outfit: Barbie Beach doll, Barbie Ballerina, Bride Barbie and the latest line, Barbie Fashionista.
Put them all together and she is the multibillion-dollar Barbie, the 11-and-a-half-inch-tall cash queen of dolls.
"[Girls] love anything that sparks their imagination," said Richard Dickson, general manager of Barbie Worldwide. "What are they going to be like when they grow up? They can live that fantasy in a very safe way through Barbie. Barbie allows girls to dream of a world of possibilities, from becoming a dentist to a doctor to a movie star to a rock star or a mom."
What might be difficult for them to imagine, though, is what it would be like to actually be in the business of designing, manufacturing and selling dolls to girls like themselves, 3 to 10 years old. Because people in the doll business aren't playing around.
El Segundo, Calif., hosts an enormous Barbie design center. In one cubicle after another, everyone works on something that's Barbie-related. "It could be a doll," said Stephanie Cota of Mattel. "It could be an accessory. It could be, you know, just her shoes. It could be just her hair. We can spend hours and hours focusing in on a belt, a necklace, a pair of glasses. All of that is really critical because at the end of the day, little girls notice every detail."
Since its introduction 50 years ago, the Mattel Corporation's Barbie doll has dominated what is now a $3 billion-a-year doll business. But with so much money to be made, some new entries have hit the scene.
Take Liv dolls -- four characters described as "BFFs," "best friends forever."
"It's the most realistic doll out there," said Mark Sullivan of Spin Master, the manufacturer. "She has real glass eyes."
Then there's Moxie Girlz, the comeback doll for MGA Entertainment, which had suffered a crushing defeat in the doll wars.
"Moxie Girlz is about self-expression, energy, self-confidence," said Isaac Larian, CEO of MGA. "And it takes some moxie to go up against Barbie. ... People, when they buy a doll for $10, they think it's easy. It's not. The hair comes from Japan. The fashions are designed here and sent to China to be made. It takes 16 workers to paint one doll's face. ... Moxie Girlz go anywhere from $10 to $29."
The business of making nice-girl dolls was shaken up by the introduction of the Britney Spears doll in 1999, a plastic rendition of bare-navel sexuality. It was followed shortly afterward by the introduction of MGA's busty "Bratz" doll, which grabbed a slightly older market of girls 6 to 9 years old and hit a half-billion dollars in sales one year.
But Mattel sued for copyright infringement and, after years of litigation, won the rights to the Bratz doll, which they will take over on the first of the year. They have a reputation for playing rough.
"I think any industry that has invention at its core is going to be incredibly protective and secretive, and the toy industry is not different than those other industries," said Dickson. "...It was a giant court battle over a little girl's doll, but it was also about big business."