American Girl Place

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There's a whole new demographic group sporting shopping bags on Chicago's Magnificent Mile these days as pre-teen girls are seen carrying merchandise and memories from American Girl Place.

In 1999, its first full year of operation, the Pleasant Co. store hosted more than 1 million visitors, almost two-thirds of them under age 12.

Credit word-of-mouth buzz generated by excellent customers experiences at the only American Girl retail store. The consumer catalog division provides dolls, clothes, books and other merchandise via direct mail. The publications division publishes and markets American Girl and all American Girl books.

The awesome retail experiences, however, are cultivated by a 28-year retail veteran from Saks Fifth Avenue, Anne Maddox, who was brought in to open the store in November 1998. She says she knew the store would be a winner from the moment she examined the dolls up close in the lobby of the Mattel division's Middleton, Wis., headquarters.

"It's very different from Saks in that our target audience is 7 to 12 years old," she says. "But this is a very high-service, experience-driven venue and so is Saks. I have called upon all my training."

Training is a key word for the 50-something Ms. Maddox, who says her key initiative is to keep her staff educated about the product and the stories behind each of the dolls.

"This is not self-service," she says. "This is customer service."

She predicted the store, which also includes a cafe and a live musical revue, would beat the sales targets by 35%.

She was wrong. It blew right past her 35% and last year raked in sales of $25 million despite little marketing outside of the American Girl catalog, which mails 50 million copies annually.

"There is so much here for a child and an adult to share, and it is girl-focused," says Ms. Maddox, VP-general manager of the store. "It tugs at your heart. We get letters from parents and grandparents thanking us for providing this kind of experience."

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