Online iDolls takes on American Girl

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An upstart online and direct marketer is taking on the $300 million American Girl juggernaut with iDolls Corp., a company staffed by former Pleasant Co. executives.

This week iDolls launches online its Dream Doll Designer program. The program, available earlier this year on CD and through a holiday catalog, includes 69 billion different doll combinations and allows girls to choose a personality, hobby and history for their $85 doll.

"Pleasant Co. did a brilliant job of creating characters around dolls through books," said iDolls CEO Michael Collins. "The next step is to let the girl create the character and let the girl write the book."

He added, "What I've learned over the last eight years is there's nothing more passionate than an 8-year-old's opinion on what her doll looks like, is named or dressed."

It's a lesson he learned at Pleasant Rowland Education Programs, which he left five years ago to start Kid Galaxy, a separate toy company. Six of iDolls' 27 executives used to work at Pleasant Co., the American Girl marketer now owned by Mattel.

DOLL RESOURCE

Already $2 million has been invested in the Dream Doll Designer program and next year iDolls plans to stock its virtual store (idolls.com) with more than 15,000 different doll items from Madame Alexander to Barbie. The company anticipates $5 million in first-year sales and $25 million the next.

"What we're trying to do with iDolls is create a company that's really about being a resource for doll lovers," Mr. Collins said. "We will build a large doll community with auctions and chats and experts."

Though sales in the U.S. doll market have been relatively flat recently, a spokeswoman at the Toy Manufacturers Association of America thinks there is always room for newcomers.

"One of the great things about the [toy] industry is it's open to anybody with a new idea," she said.

In 1998, sales of dolls -- from baby dolls to special edition collectors dolls -- totaled $2.7 billion.

The spokeswoman said iDolls' plan, to be an online doll source as well as allow customers to create their own dolls, taps into two popular trends: the Internet and do-it-yourself.

PUSHING HUGE SELECTION

"Part of the reason [the doll market] is flat is consumers haven't been exposed to the variety of dolls," said Craig Currie, exec VP-operations at iDolls.

"There's a huge selection of dolls out there that never see the light of day. That's one of the things we're really going to push the envelope on."

He thinks iDolls will be able to compete with online toy stores in the quantity of products it sells as well as the content about dolls it will include on the site. While the custom-designed dolls might not attain the high market value of American Girls dolls, Mr. Currie predicted the design program would draw children to the Web site, if only to create pretend dolls.

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