American Girl

                                        by Dan Zeff

Chicago American Girl opened on north Michigan Avenue in 1998 and quickly became a must-visit destination for tourist and local pre teen girls. A visitor entering the store will immediately join swarms of doll-clutching girls, attended by mothers, grandmothers, aunts, neighbors (and even fathers and grandfathers, who don’t seem a bit embarrassed by their presence among the mass of little ladies).

The girls are in the store to examine the merchandise, perhaps purchasing a doll, clothing, furniture, accessories, books, arts and crafts, cookware, and bake ware. American Girl is more than a shopping outlet for little girls, it’s a whole culture, a lifestyle shared between the dolls and their young owner-friends.

A girl can bring her doll to have her hair done in the store beauty shop or mended at the store doll hospital. She can share brunch, lunch, high tea, or dinner with her doll, perched right next to her at the restaurant table in a booster seat provided by management.

American Girl has grown into one of the great success stories in American business. It started out as a catalogue sales operation in 1986. The same year it began selling American Girl books (more than 153 million books sold to date). The operation then opened retail stores, with 20 now in operation in cities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Chicago store is the largest in the American Girl chain with two stories and 52,000 square feet. About 1.5 million people enter the store each year.

The youthful customer is presented with a dazzling choice of products. Each doll has her own name and individual appearance. There are historical dolls, ethnic dolls, and modern dolls. Because a doll must be stylishly clothed, American Girl stands ready to sell a vast wardrobe of outfits. It’s common to see a girl intensely considering what articles of clothing are most suitable for her playmate. Girls can even buy matching outfits.

A girl can create a lifestyle for her doll. For the outdoor doll, there is an outdoor tent and a hiking outfit. For the horse loving doll, how about a stable with swinging doors and supplies like a make-believe water trough and hay bales? For the musical doll, there is a baby grand piano and cello and guitar sets. For the doll’s domestic comfort, the girl can select from a line of household furniture, including a dining room set, beds and bedding, and chrome 1940’s style table and chairs.

 Girls often pour over American Girl catalogues well in advance of their visits, carefully assembling a bucket list of items to purchase. The sales staff displays a thorough knowledge of their products and a sympathetic understanding of their young clients. The girls treat their American Girl visits seriously and there isn’t a whiff of condescension or patronizing from the adult clerks.

Depending upon the indulgence of their adult companions and the financial state of their piggy bank, girls can run up a considerable tab with the purchase of a doll considered a starter kit for add-on purchases. Of course, visitors can wander through an American Girl store without buying anything, but the probability of leaving without some purchase proudly carried in a red American Girl shopping bag is remote to the point of impossibility.

Eating at the store isn’t mandatory but it’s recommended for customers who want the full American Girl experience. The menus are surprisingly sophisticated. The girls aren’t fobbed off on tater tots and chicken nuggets. Our lunch started off with a plate of warm pastries, following by a platter of appetizers. A dessert of chocolate mousse and cupcakes ended the meal. The wait staff exhibited unforced friendliness and efficiency, ready to snap pictures at the table or be part of the photo record themselves. When the girls visit the restroom, their dolls can be secured on special hooks while their owners are otherwise engaged. American Girl does think of everything.

American Girl constantly introduces new dolls. Earlier dolls often go “in the vault,” meaning they are discontinued. These dolls can become collector’s items and command high prices on the open market. But girls typically bond with their dolls to the point that they wouldn’t think of parting with them, even as the children age into their teens and beyond. My grand daughter bought a doll several years ago. She is now in college and her doll-playing days obviously are over. But she’s carefully put her American Girl doll away, intending to pass it one day to a daughter of her own.

The Chicago American Girl store is located at 835 North Michigan Avenue in Water Tower Place. Hours are Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information and dining reservations call 877 247 5223. Meal reservations should be made well in advance of a visit.

The American Girl experience gets a rating of 4 stars                                                                  September 2016

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