Miami-Dade County

American Girl opening first Florida store at The Falls

Natalia Garcia-Hanna has been counting down the days until this week’s opening of the American Girl store at The Falls. The 6-year-old from Pinecrest already has six American Girl dolls, but she’s never been inside the store that is fantasy land for young girls.

If you’re not a girl between the ages of 6 and 12 or the parent of one, there’s a good chance you may not understand the fascination with American Girl. This is more than just a doll store. It’s a cultural phenomenon, albeit with a smaller demographic group, that inspires the same kind of devotion as brands like Apple, H&M or Ikea.

In an era when kids are increasingly focused on all things electronic, American Girl offers a chance to hold on to more traditional values.

“Life today is so fast paced, it’s nice to see them go back and play with dolls and use their imagination,” said mom Natalie Hanna-Garcia of Miami, who already has made reservations at the American Girl bistro for Sunday and again next Thursday. “It’s going to be nice to have something to enjoy together. They’re only kids once, so it’s nice to share that little bond.”

American Girl offers a unique interactive experience. Girls can visit the bistro for tea with mom or bring friends for a special birthday party. They can take their doll to the hair salon for a new style or a facial. At the “Creativi-Tees” boutique they can design matching T-shirts for them and their dolls.

The American Girl store is like one giant dollhouse with a cheery color scheme of pink, raspberry and violet. The average customer spends about two hours compared to the retail industry average of about 20 minutes, said Wade Opland, American Girl’s vice president of retail.

“When she walks around the store, it’s all at her level, because it’s all about the girl,” Opland said. “There’s a lot of pressure on girls today to grow up fast. American Girl is a place to find wholesome product.”

You can’t just get an American Doll anywhere. The Falls location will be only the 14th store in the country for the brand that was started in 1986. The first flagship store opened in Chicago in 1998. Until now South Florida girls had to shop online or visit stores while on vacation in New York, Atlanta, Boston or Los Angeles.

Keeping the brand exclusive is part of the attraction and why American Girl expects The Falls store to attract 750,000 people a year, drawing from as far as 200 miles away, Opland said.

“We’re very methodical about our growth strategy,” Opland said. “We don’t want to over saturate the market. We want to keep American Girl as a destination.”

For opening weekend, 10,000 to 15,000 people are expected. The store’s capacity is 380, so tickets will be distributed with an assigned group number. The Bistro is virtually sold out on the weekend for months with about 10,000 reservations booked.

The official grand opening isn’t until Saturday, but there’s an invitation-only event Thursday night and the store quietly opened its doors starting Wednesday.

Natalia can hardly wait. “I like the dolls because they’re cute and they have so much nice stuff,” she said.

American Girl’s creator, Pleasant T. Rowland, was a former educator and textbook writer from Madison, Wis. who started the dolls because she couldn’t find any suitable for girls between 9 and 12. She created the original line of historical dolls as a way to teach girls about different periods of American history. Rowland sold the company to Mattel for $700 million in 1998.

It’s under Mattel that the company has grown beyond its original catalogue focus to add retail stores and online sales. Last year, American Girl rang up annual sales of $511 million. Even with increased competition and a $105 price tag for the average doll, sales have continued to grow.

“American Girl has really been a bright spot for Mattel,” said Edward Woo, senior research analyst who follows the toys industry for Ascendiant Capital Markets. “They’ve got a very good niche. They have been able to create more demand by opening more stores and creating new characters. Even with the economy, they’ve done surprisingly well.”

While some of Rowland’s original historical dolls have been retired, today there are nine dolls in the historical collection from Kaya, a Nez Perce Indian girl from 1774, to Julie Albright, who is growing up in San Francisco in 1974 and dealing with the divorce of her parents. There’s also the story of Addy Walker, who is escaping slavery in 1864, and Kit Kittredge, who is growing up during the Great Depression in 1934.

Every year American Girl releases a new historical doll, like this year’s addition, Caroline Abbott, who grew up during the War of 1812 and when her father is captured she must keep the shipyard running.

The historical dolls each come with authentic accessories to provide appropriate playtime activities like Caroline’s skiff, the sailboat used during that time period. Plus, each doll has as a series of six books that take the reader through the challenges the historical girl faced.

At Carrollton School in Coconut Grove they’ve found the American Girl stories an effective medium to bring historical events to life in a way that students can understand and relate to. The stories have been part of the school’s third grade language arts and history curriculum for about 20 years.

Lily Lamelas already has a collection of about 24 American Girl dolls and can’t wait to get the new Caroline doll when she visits the store. But reading about the dolls this year at school is giving new meaning to the experience. Her favorite so far: Felicity Merriman, a colonial girl from 1774.

“She’s very pretty and her books are very interesting,” said Lily, an 8-year-old from Pine Crest. “I love reading about her and her family.”