Barbie in Shanghai: Finally available in the land of her birth

On Monday, The Washington Post reported on the opening of the flagship Barbie store in Shanghai, China. Targeted at adults as well as children, the six-story, 35,000 square foot store includes a spa and gourmet restaurant, and sells high-end chocolates and women's clothing.

One irony lies in the fact that many of the new Barbie store's target customers may well have had a hand in making the popular dolls. Mattel has two factories in China: located in Dongguan and Nanhai, the manufacturing centers employ 11,000 workers and produce most of the 100 million Barbies that Mattel sells every year.In a broader sense, the Barbie store is reflective of a bigger trend as China moves from being an economy focused on producing products for the rest of the world to one that also consumes. With a personal savings rate that is more than twice that of their American counterparts, Chinese people simply aren't as carefree about their purchasing habits. This isn't to say, however, that they are not interested in spending: according to a 2008 survey, some 16.8% of Chinese aged 18-34 are currently in the market for a new car (as compared to 16.1% of their American counterparts). Similarly, almost twice as many young Chinese plan to buy a house, and almost three times as many planned to travel within six months of the survey.

Chinese consumers are also picking up some of the bad habits of their American counterparts. The Barbie store already seems to be a likely site for shop therapy: as one young patron stated, "Wouldn't this be great if this was my home?" This response is not atypical: as a marketing professor at a Shanghai university noted, "Mattel is thinking to rebuild the brand image here as a dream, a paradise not only for little girls but for their mothers, too."

Barbie isn't the only Western company that is looking to the East in search of new customers. New York's iconic Barney's clothing store (now owned by a Dubai firm), is supposedly considering sites for a Chinese outlet, and prestigious New York gallery Pace Wildenstein opened a Beijing location in the summer of 2008. Meanwhile, companies ranging from Estee Lauder to Dove soap are repackaging their wares for what might eventually be an unimaginably large market.

Of course, the very size of that market suggests that it must be developed cautiously. In a story that is disturbingly reminiscent of some of America's most horrifying "Black Friday" atrocities, two shoppers were recently trampled to death in a sales stampede in Chongqing, China. In a similar 2007 incident, three were killed and 31 were injured. As the world's biggest factory starts to transform itself into the world's biggest store, it will be interesting to see how (and if) they learn from America's mistakes.
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