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Dolls Like Me: Retailers see ‘holiday green’ in multicultural toys

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By Chris Levister –

Mylisa Knowles and her sister Kendra were disturbed by their 3, 6 and 9 year-old daughters playing with toys that didn’t reflect the diversity of the neighborhood around them – so much so that on Christmas 2 years ago they launched a doll drive and toy educational campaign to help parents looking for multicultural, ethnic or anti-racist dolls and toys. The campaign hit a raw nerve.

“There’s still a lot of disgust and frustration out there. We found that parents of children of color regularly scan shelves looking for culturally and ethnically sensitive toys often coming away insulted and empty handed,” says Mylisa.

To date the Knowles have collected thousands of new and used culturally sensitive toys including ethnic dolls, puppets, puzzles, multicultural Crayola crayons and books like author bell hooks “Happy to Be Nappy”, a positive message about brown girls with kinky-curly hair of all lengths.

“The reason little girls love dolls so much is that they are miniatures of themselves. Dolls are one of the first toys of identity and self expression,” said Kendra. “Children want their dolls to reflect who they are.”

The Knowles are gearing up to distribute the toys to low-income Inland Empire children like 6-year-old Natasha Williams who wrote a letter to The North Pole asking for the Princess Tiana doll. Anika Noni Rose Disney’s first-ever Black princess plays Tiana in the animated film “The Princess and the Frog”.

“At first I wanted “Belle” (the white heroine of “Beauty and the Beast”) but I changed my mind when I saw Princess Tiana. She’s pretty like Malia and Sasha Obama,” said Williams.

A 2008 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey found 86% of African-American parents, 73% of Hispanic parents and 52% of Asian parents felt, “it is important for children of color to have dolls that look like them.”

Bolstered by the success of Nickelodeon’s popular bilingual children’s character, Dora the Explorer, and the spending power of the nation’s growing minority population, toy retailers across the country are filling their shelves with dolls whose skin colors and facial features reflect the girls and boys who play with them.

Although Black and Hispanic dolls have been around for decades, doll designers and manufacturers are trying harder at authenticity, rather than simply tinting the hair and skin from “white” doll molds.

Discount retailer Kmart has been cashing in on a growing appetite for ethnic toys among minority consumers, and their rising spending power. In 2007 it launched its own initiative - dozens of multicultural dolls on shelves nationwide.

Although other retailers are stocking more multicultural dolls often in predominantly minority neighborhoods, Kmart claims it’s the first mass-market retailer to have such a wide selection available in every store.

Kmart stores sell nearly four dozen types of ethnic dolls a nearly fourfold increase from 2006. The dolls are flanked by an advertising campaign in the store’s circulars and designed to appeal to Black, Hispanic and Asian parents.

“We needed to be relevant to them,” said Philipp Elliott, a toy merchandise manager at Kmart, a subsidiary of Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp.

Becoming relevant to minority shoppers can reap big benefits. About one in three Americans is a minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2006 and 2011, the spending power of the country’s Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and multiracial shoppers is expected to grow 38 percent, to $1.9 trillion.

Meanwhile Hispanic buying power alone is projected to grow a formidable 48 percent, to almost $1.2 trillion, according to data from The University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth.

By 2050, minorities will account for half of U.S. residents, according to Census Bureau projections.

Kmart officials declined to release figures showing how much the chain has invested in the doll project, which includes brands such as Baby Abuelita and Mattel Inc.’s Rebelde dolls, as well as the newly designed proprietary Just Girlz collection. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien said the chain’s Hispanic doll selection has more than tripled since 2007 while the total assortment of Black baby dolls has more than doubled.

All told, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has more than 70 varieties of ethnic dolls, but it doesn’t carry the full selection in every store. Instead, it often stocks many of them in neighborhoods where there are more minority shoppers.

Wayne, N.J.-based Toys “R” Us Inc., which follows a similar approach when stocking its more than 100 types of multicultural dolls, said its Hispanic selection has soared in the past two years along with smaller increases in the more established Black doll products.

“If you’re a little girl of color, you’ve got choices” said Denise Gary Robinson, president of DollsLikeMe.com, an online specialty doll boutique that specializes in ethnic dolls, toys and gifts. “I see companies now really putting forth the effort. I see designers going back to the drawing board and saying the old colored-plastic routine isn’t working.”


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