Jeni Weisenberger of Elk River walked into the Mall of America in Bloomington around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, with Beverly Kossack of Lakeville hard on her heels. The mothers -- joined hours later by their daughters and husbands -- were at the head of the pack when the nation's seventh American Girl store threw open its doors just before 9 a.m.
By then, hundreds of moms, dads, daughters and a few impatient sons had fallen in behind them, snaking their way twice around the store. There was no talk of recession, a plummeting stock market or bills at home waiting to be paid.
"My girls had their clothes laid out for a week," said Lauren Huntington, of Prior Lake, who was there with daughters Katie, 9, and Charlotte, 7.
American Girl has been a growing phenomenon since its beginnings in 1986 as a catalog company. The 18-inch dolls and the historical books about them draw fans from kindergartners to centenarians, and last year raked in $431 million in sales for parent company Mattel Inc.
With themes built around various periods in American history, the dolls come in a rainbow of races, cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Girls can special order dolls with any hair, skin or eye color they'd like. They also can buy matching outfits, pay to have their dolls' hair styled or ears pierced. Accessories include roller skates, horses or even dolls for the dolls.
Educator Pleasant Rowland started the company to spark pride in America's past and encourage girls to read and dream. In 1998, the company became a part of toy giant Mattel, which had come to recognize the staying power of this alternative to its own longstanding doll powerhouse -- Barbie. Mattel opened the first American Girl store in Chicago the same year.
Still based in Middleton, Wis., American Girl is now also a publisher of the eighth-largest children's magazine, and has sold some 123 million books. This summer, a feature film based on one of the doll characters, Kit Kittredge, hit movie screens, an enterprise that American Girl executives said is helping draw interest -- and sales -- even as cash-strapped consumers pull back on other spending.
The American Girl stories center around the modest lifestyles of times past, but the dolls and accessories don't come at a bargain-basement price. The dolls sell for about $90, the books start at $7 and outfits can cost $25. The snowboard, clothing and accessories run about $60.
Wade Opland, American Girl's vice president of retail, said he isn't concerned about opening a store in the Twin Cities in the midst of what analysts say could be the bleakest holiday retail season in three decades. Opland said there's no sign that parents are trading down and buying more accessories than dolls, though the holiday season has yet to hit full stride.
"The toy industry is usually more resilient during tough times," Opland said. "Parents will spend money on children before they'll spend it on themselves."
Last year, some 23 million people visited stores in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta. A store in a Boston suburb opened two weeks ago. The stores are marketed as "destinations," and customers spend an average of two hours inside, according to company officials.
At about 22,000-square feet, the two-story Mall of America shop, located on the east side of Nickelodeon Universe is about half the size of the flagship stores in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. It has a hair salon where dolls can get a new 'do ($10 to $20), a bistro where girls and their dolls can have a weekend brunch ($14), and separate rooms that can host private parties of up to 14 kids ($600).
The Mall of America spent the past decade trying to woo American Girl. Opland said strong catalogue sales in Minnesota and the mall's draw of national and international shoppers made it a strong candidate for expansion. No other retail outlets currently are planned, he said.
The store opened quietly on Wednesday, but Saturday was the first day school kids and those from outside of the metro area could make the drive. American Girl officials expected to have 5,000 customers on Saturday. The bistro, which began taking reservations on Sept. 15, was booked solid for the grand opening.
Sophia Hayden, 7, stood in the checkout line with her "Just Like You" doll, Sophie. With her namesake doll nestled into the new hot-pink car seat and a new outfit still in its box, Sophia was all grins.
"We got a few things today," said mom Terri, "and she's got a long list for Christmas now."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335