This is going to be one interesting Christmas for Barbie.
With sales of the 56-year-old doll headed for their fourth straight annual decline â€” they were down 16 percent in the first half â€” Mattel is hoping the November rollout of its high-tech Hello Barbie reverses the trend.
The company is boasting the souped-up Barbie can deliver 8,000 lines of conversation and will enhance the relationship between child and doll.
Plus, the tech-infused Hello Barbie could also push the dollâ€™s core demographic, which has been squeezed to ages 3-to-6, back to its traditional 3-to-9. Girls from 7 to 9 are much more into tech toys.
But judging from the static coming from parent groups and others since Hello Barbie was unveiled in March, the doll may also deliver 8,000 hours of agita for Mattel brass.
One group, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, fearful the dialogue between the child and Hello Barbie â€” to be stored in the cloud â€” will be used for commercial purposes, has started a petition asking Mattel not to release the high-tech doll.
The El Segundo, Calif., company has also taken steps to urge parents who buy the $75 Hello Barbie to remember to wipe the app clean if they decide to give the doll away.
And now, the most recent kerfuffle is just how many holidays Hello Barbie will be programmed to acknowledge. Omitting some religious holidays will alienate some parents â€” which can hurt sales.
Already, sales of Barbie, down for seven straight quarters, are on track to dip below $1 billion a year for the first time in years.
With Hello Barbieâ€™s retail debut just weeks away, Mattel is still wrestling with the religion-holiday question.
â€œIf you are going to recognize Christmas, you want to make sure you recognize other significant religious holidays,â€ said Mattel spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni.
Parents can customize which holidays Hello Barbie talks about with their children. Moms and dads must set up the doll with a mobile app, developed in partnership with ToyTalk, a San Francisco tech company started by former Pixar executives.
The app allows parents to monitor their childrenâ€™s conversations.
ToyTalk insists it will not use the conversations for commercial purposes â€” to upsell kids on movies, music or other things.
Mattel is hoping all the criticism melts away once Hello Barbie hits stores shelves â€” and that sales turn around.
It can certainly use it.
Barbieâ€™s years-long sales meltdown has sparked a steep sell-off in Mattel shares. They are down 44 percent in the last three years, while rival Hasbro has seen its shares climb 90 percent over the same period.
â€œMattel has gotten a lot of heat over everything with Barbie,â€ said Jim Silver of TTPM, a toy review site. â€œThey might have been a little surprised by the controversy.â€
And, of course, with all things tech, more surprises could be awaiting Hello Barbieâ€™s retail debut.
Mattel advises parents on what to do if Hello Barbie starts spewing â€œinappropriate remarks or if [parents] believe the security of the doll has been compromised.â€
Well, it turns out, there isnâ€™t an app for that.
But Mattel will provide an 800-number. Parents are urged to call with any complaints.