We saw this coming, but it still feels surreal: the Shanghai Barbie store celebrated its second anniversary by ceasing to operate.
I learned of this demise when I received the following text message this afternoon:
Translation: The Shanghai Barbie flagship store has completed its mission of developing the brand in the Chinese market, and will cease to operate on March 7, 2011. Thank you for your support.
It sounds like the PR folks are spinning it as, the store has been so successful in China that it’s shutting down.
As a loyal Shanghai Barbie fan and someone who will actually miss the store, I didn’t want to believe the news, and searched for a phone number to call. However, the store’s website has already been taken down, replaced by a list of alternate places to find Barbie merchandise in Shanghai.
I assume I received the text message because I have a Barbie passport (for discounts and rewards). I spent a lot of time in that place. It was campy, yes… but it had its charm. I wrote about the fantastic Barbie Spa for Shanghaiist in November 2009, a girly heaven where I could go for Barbie manicures and Barbie Bust Firming treatments. I made the Barbie store a must-see sight whenever friends visited from out of town. I spent many happy hours drinking Barbitinis in their restaurant on the sixth floor.
The business experts will delve into the problems the Barbie store faced in the Chinese market, but here’s my two cents on why the store couldn’t stay afloat, and was pretty much deserted every time I stopped by:
1) Terrible location: The store was located at 550 Huaihai Zhong Lu, which sounds like a great spot (the Huaihai Lu shopping street!) but in actuality is a pain in the arse to get to, situated between two subway stops, but not particularly close to either.
2) Terrible storefront: Even if you happened to pass by 550 Huaihai Zhong Lu, there was nothing enticing you inside. In fact, most of the time people seemed to walk past it without realizing there was a Barbie anything there. Why was the entire first floor a big, dark, gloomy empty space, with only a small Barbie corner right by the entrance with limited merchandise? The crazy pink escalator bringing visitors up to the second floor (where the store “really” began) was also hidden off to the right, not in plain view from the main entrance.
3) No great love for the Barbie doll in China/Shanghai: Do Chinese girls play with Barbie? There were worries that a great big Barbie store in China would promote the idea that beauty is blonde and blue eyed, but it never seemed like the kids there were very excited over the dolls themselves. The few children I saw there were usually enjoying the Barbie bedroom (lying on the plush comforter, pink sheets) and playing with the Barbie skateboard. They might have been happier in Toys R Us.
4) General creepy atmosphere: The store itself seemed to be giving up as 2010 progressed, becoming a real ghost town. First they shut down the spa, then closed down the restaurant, moving food and beverage service to the smaller cafe on the fifth floor. The last time I visited the cafe, I noted that their condiment packets were old stock from 2009, the sugar hard and clumpy. No new supplies were coming in. It took 15 minutes for the waitress to even notice us — she was apologetic and sweet, genuinely flustered that there were waiting customers. No one else came to the cafe the whole 2 hours we were there.
Despite knowing the Barbie store was doomed, I’m still genuinely shocked the pink monolith has shut its doors. I hope it moves to Tokyo where it’ll be too kawaii to resist. My Japanese friends have been the most enthusiastic about the Barbie store, purchasing expensive jackets and shoes that my Chinese friends deemed overpriced. Perhaps a kitschy flagship megastore of this sort would have worked better in Japan or elsewhere, while smaller stores opened around Shanghai to give Barbie a greater presence before plonking six floors of pink onto Huaihai Lu.
A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on Shanghai Shiok!.