Page last updated at 00:17 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 01:17 UK

Chinese kids sold 'Barbie dream'


Chris Hogg takes a tour around the store in Shanghai

If you were planning a flagship store to showcase your international brand, which city would you choose to open it in? Paris, New York, London perhaps - all cities celebrated for their great shopping, but at the moment all suffering during the economic downturn. Some big companies are now looking further east, as the BBC's Chris Hogg in Shanghai explains.

Mattel recently opened the world's first store dedicated to Barbie in Shanghai. They hope it will be a hit, but will it?

It is spread across six floors, linked by a sweeping staircase bedecked with 875 dolls, each dressed in shocking pink.

There is a throne where Chinese Barbie-wannabes can get their picture snapped, a runway where diminutive princesses can strut their stuff, a manicurist on hand to clean up the cuticles of mother or child, and boxes and boxes of dolls - every incarnation of Barbie, including one with the trademark blond hair, but more "Asian-looking" eyes.

Annie Wang
My friends' baby girls don't really differentiate Barbie as a Western brand
Annie Wang
Shanghai Tatler

"A lot of the Chinese mothers, they didn't have Barbie in their childhoods, so Barbie gives them something they can share with their daughter," explains Laura Lai, the store's manager.

"It's like filling in the missing part in their childhoods," she says.

Ms Lai explains that the store has been designed to provide a lot of opportunities for interaction. Mothers and their daughters can design a new doll together, have lunch in the cafe or snack in the ice cream bar.

"There's a lot of moments that a mother can share with her daughter, so it's not just a young girl's playground," she says. "It's also for girls of all ages."

She appears to be right. Nearby a mother is patiently helping her six-year-old identify where each of a string of multi-cultural Barbies in national dress come from.

"I think children in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing know quite a lot about Barbie," the woman says while her daughter pulls at her arm, wanting to see more.

Chinese mother and daughter
The Barbie shop affords some quality mother-daughter time

She worries about the price though. "Barbie's still quite expensive in China," she says.

"Sometimes we buy fakes. But as people get richer I think Barbie will become more popular."

That's one important reason why Barbie chose Shanghai, after extensive research, over any other world city. China isn't yet a rich country, far from it, but those who do have money to spend are eager for new experiences.

The cashiers here are busy. Interestingly though, it is the blond, stick-thin, traditional model of Barbie that most people seem to be buying, despite the fact there are other, more Asian looking versions on sale.

Annie Wang, the managing editor of Shanghai Tatler, a society magazine is not surprised.

Chinese girl dressed as Barbie
Western firms hope Chinese children will develop a love of their brands

"I think my friends' baby girls don't really differentiate Barbie as a Western brand," she argues. "They see Barbie or they see Lion King as part of their life. It's just another alternative, like they eat Chinese food but they also know about McDonald's."

The people behind Barbie believe China will become their biggest market one day.

This store is an investment in the future, an attempt to attract consumers who will become more and more important as they get older (because there are so many of them and they are likely to have more money to spend than their parents do) - Chinese kids.

Barbie is not the only international brand using new strategies to try to target this important consumer group in Shanghai.

Extra pressure

The Walt Disney Company Limited has opened its first branded schools here, the first anywhere in the world.

Bright and impossibly cheery teachers from overseas have come here to teach English to young Chinese children. They use the very latest audio and video technology and of course enlist the help of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and all the famous characters children elsewhere in the world know so well.

The English learning market in China is worth $2.1bn (£1.42bn) in consumer spending, a figure than excludes public or government spending, according to the company.

Children learn English at the Disney clubhouse
The Walt Disney company has opened its first branded school in Shanghai

"It's the fastest growing English language learning market in the world," says Disney's Andrew Sugerman.

"It also has a natural overlap with our commercial concerns," he says, "bringing the Disney stories, and the Disney 'assets' to bear here in the local market."

What that means of course is that this is an opportunity Disney intends to make the most of, to inculcate Chinese children a love of the brand at an early age, a similar approach to that taken by Barbie.

There is nothing sinister about it of course. The company has a long history of providing educational materials for classrooms around the world and it has put a lot of effort and research into ensuring the programme works.

But just as with Barbie, their Shanghai enterprise takes what they have done before a step further, in their case by opening and running their own schools.

The big international brands seem to be using Shanghai as a test bed for their further expansion in China. As the country's most advanced market, they can try out strategies that if successful here can be rolled out to so called tier two and tier three cities in the coming months.

The Barbie store is packed on weekends at the moment. It is easy to create excitement with a new venture of course.

It is much harder to sustain it, so it is probably too early to judge whether or not these new projects will prove successful.

But for the sales executives who have created the store, there is extra pressure.

They know that sales of the doll are falling elsewhere in the world in key markets like the US, making it all the more important they get it right, here in Shanghai.

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