At Easton, fans pack “soft” opening of American Girl Boutique

June 20th, 2013

Tim Feran, The Columbus Dispatch
June 20, 2013

Yesterday’s “soft” opening of Ohio’s first American Girl store was supposed to be a practice run for the staff and a chance for media to get a look before Saturday’s grand opening.

Given the mania normally associated with the company, it’s probably no surprise it turned into more than that.

People were waiting for the doors to open at 10 a.m., and by lunchtime the store’s 24-seat bistro cafe was filled with customers drinking pink lemonade and eating pizza.

The early buzz is an indicator that the 11,400-square-foot store at Easton Town Center — a tad larger than the Trader Joe’s at Easton — is destined for success, said Wade Opland, vice president of retail for the company.

“This is our 15th store, and, from past experience, we know we’ll draw from 200, 250 miles away. It’s a huge pull,” Opland said. “We know we’ll have people drive in from Cleveland, from Cincinnati, from Detroit. We’ll have packages with local hotels including rental doll ‘roommates.’ Last year we rented 40,000 roommates.”

The 27-year-old company’s newest store at Easton’s family-friendly Fenlon Square is far from its largest, but much time and effort were spent on getting all the details right, an American Girl spokeswoman said.

“It’s not our first rodeo,” said a smiling Julie Parks.

The American Girl store is an outgrowth of a line of 18-inch dolls that portray 9- to 11-year-old girls of various ethnicities. The dolls come with books that tell their stories. Originally aimed at representing various periods of American history, the dolls expanded in the mid-1990s to include contemporary characters. Each character takes about three years to develop.

The stores also sell clothing — including matching outfits for girls and their dolls — and a growing line of accessories including musical instruments, fashion items and specialty goods such as a wheelchair.

For the first 14 years the company sold its dolls strictly via direct mail. Then, in 1998, it opened its first retail store, in Chicago.

“It took five years before we opened our second store,” Parks said. “We’re really conservative with our strategy. We want to make it special, memorable. That’s why you’re not going to see 200 stores.”

In addition to the bistro, which is designed to “ look like a little doll house,” Opland said, the store includes a salon with miniature chairs for the dolls to have their vinyl faces and hair cleaned; a library featuring the dozens of books “that offer timeless lessons about friends, family, loyalty, compassion,” he said; and a “ girl-of-the-year” area with this year’s doll, Saige.

“This isn’t just a store,” Opland said. “This is an experience. We do spend a lot of time making sure of that. The average person spends 1.5 to 2 hours in the store. So we want to be sure that there’s a lot in here about our core values — and about having fun. We want it to be absolutely magical.”

For the many little girls who led their parents into the store yesterday, the magic was evident as they literally quivered with excitement.

“Can we do that, please?” said Baily Dixon, 7, of Chillicothe, as employees mentioned the store’s spa day for dolls.

Such excitement was all too familiar to Hailey Miller of Upper Arlington, who couldn’t remember how old she was when she got the first of her 11 American Girl dolls. “Maybe 4 or 5,” she said. “I played with them until I was about 13.”

On the day Miller turned 18, “on purpose, I asked for a job application, and they interviewed me,” she said.

The company hired her on the spot for the Easton store. “It was probably my best birthday ever,” she said. “It’s so fun working here. I feel like I’m playing. It’s a dream come true.”

Customers will be able to get numbered tickets starting at 7 a.m. on Saturday, two hours before the store opens at 9 a.m., and at 8 a.m. on Sunday, two hours before its 10 a.m. opening.
“That way, no one stands in line for hours and hours,” Opland said.

Regular store hours will be 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

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