Barbie is all the buzz this summer — and retailers hope it will make cautious consumers spend

Key Points
  • Retailers and brands are trying to cash in on the Barbie buzz, as higher grocery prices and a shift toward services hurt sales of discretionary merchandise.
  • Macy's-owned Bloomingdale's, Gap, Aldo and Crocs are some of the companies with deals with Mattel to create and sell Barbie-themed clothing, shoes and more.
  • Companies are also thinking beyond Barbie by chasing new and different merchandise that gets shoppers to spend.
Bloomingdale's is just one of the retailers and brands trying to tap into Barbie buzz. It has a pop-up with exclusive Barbie-inspired apparel and accessories, along with a life-size Barbie box where shoppers can strike a pose.

NEW YORK CITY — In the middle of Manhattan, shoppers can step inside a life-size Barbie box; strike a pose by a hot pink slide; and browse earrings, dresses and candles inspired by the iconic plastic doll.

The pop-up shop inside the Bloomingdale's flagship store is just one example of how retailers are trying to cash in on the buzz ahead of the Friday release of "Barbie" from Warner Bros. Discovery.

More than 100 brands, including Bloomingdale's, Kohl's, Crocs and Gap, have licensing agreements or other deals with toy maker Mattel to sell Barbie-themed fashion, beauty, accessories and more. Many of those items cater to adults who want to channel childhood memories by donning bright pink heels or lounging on a pool floatie that looks it came out of a Barbie dreamhouse.

Bloomingdale's has an exclusive collection of Barbie-inspired women's clothing and accessories for its private label, Aqua. It also hopes to draw shoppers with Barbie-themed window displays on Lexington Avenue, special events and complimentary hair styling.

With a splash of hot pink, retailers hope to chase away the summer doldrums and inflation blues. The Barbie merchandise, while hatched months ago leading up to the movie, speaks to how retailers have had to work harder and get creative to catch shoppers' attention and convince them to pay full price. Companies including Bloomingdale's parent Macy's, big-box retailer Target and Coach parent Tapestry have warned of weaker sales of discretionary merchandise and big-ticket items in the U.S., as consumers pay more for groceries and spend on services such as dining out and traveling.

Plus, millions of Americans have another expense returning this fall: Student loan payments are resuming after a more than three-year pandemic-related pause.

The rise of #Barbiecore: Mattel cashes in on nostalgia ahead of movie release
The rise of #Barbiecore: Mattel cashes in on nostalgia ahead of movie release

Aldo Chief Brand and Product Officer Daianara Grullon Amalfitano said some sparkle and hot pink could help snap shoppers out of a practical, budget-focused mindset.

"This Barbie/Aldo collaboration is one of those where maybe that rational thinking just goes out the window and you're just like, 'Ah, this makes me feel so happy. So good. I have to have it,'" she said.

About half of Aldo's Barbie collection sold out in the first week. The company said it's working on replenishing inventory for the limited-edition collection, which includes 19 items from crossbody bags to pumps.

About half of Aldo's 317 North American stores carry the line, along with its website. The Aldo products are also available at select Macy's stores and on the Macy's website.

Aldo has a collection of Barbie shoes and handbags. Some of the items, such as its Barbie platform sandals, sold out within 24 hours, the company said.

Macy's higher-end department store, Bloomingdale's, carries the Barbie the Movie x Aqua line in nine stores and online, and mixed in merchandise from other brands. So far, the Barbie merchandise is "selling incredibly well" and appealing to customers across generations, said Frank Berman, the department store's chief marketing officer.

Berman said the retailer intentionally included items across price points in the Barbie-inspired collection, from a $24 pink candle to rose gold heart stud earrings for $8,350.

"We have a few things that are a little over the top, but it's curated so that everybody can have a piece of it," he said.

Many items in Gap's Barbie collection have sold out. They include rectangular hot pink adult sunglasses and a T-shirt with "Ken" in big capital pink letters, both $39.95.

Gap has sold out of some of its popular Barbie items, including rectangular pink sunglasses. Its pink denim jacket is also a top performer across its stores and website.

Barbie to the rescue?

Barbie may not just jolt a sluggish 2023 box office. The buzz could also lift spending on nonessential items that has dropped after a Covid-19 spending spree.

Retailers will likely have to keep offering unique and trendy merchandise to get shoppers to shell out on wants rather than needs as they gear up for the all-important holiday season.

Discretionary general merchandise sales fell 4% in dollars in June compared with the year-ago period, according to market researcher Circana, the merged company formerly known as The NPD Group and IRI. Unit sales in the category fell 9% during that period.

Last week, Amazon, Walmart, Target and more retailers drove sales by offering deeper discounts with Amazon Prime Day and other competing promotions. Consumers spent $12.7 billion during the two-day sales event online in the U.S., representing 6.1% growth year over year and marking a new record, according to Adobe Analytics.

Barbie cut through as a popular search item last week. It jumped from 85th to 49th on the list of top brands this Prime Day versus last year, according to early data from Numerator. The top Barbie item sold during the sales event was lead actress Margot Robbie's "Barbie" collectible doll.

As Americans look for deals, Barbie is just one of the ways retailers are persuading them to look beyond the essentials.

How the Barbie movie is changing Mattel's business
How the controversial Barbie brand made a comeback

Oliver Chen, a retail analyst for Cowen, said brands have capitalized on trends such as the shift toward looser-fitting denim, the return to dressier and more tailored outfits for occasions and the heightened interest in innovative makeup and skin care products.

"Every brand loves newness because newness creates desire," said Chen.

Barbie is "another floating life jacket" retailers can grab onto, said Susan Fournier, a professor of marketing and dean of Boston University's Questrom School of Business. The brand has built-in recognition, nostalgia that resonates across generations and baked-in free marketing because of the movie.

Unlike other movie-themed merchandise, Barbie isn't just a logo that can get plastered on T-shirts and backpacks, but it is an aesthetic that cuts across home goods, makeup and clothing, and channels an optimism many shoppers may crave, she said.

"We're in a pretty messy world," she said. "We're in the post-Covid world, which has a ton of baggage. There's a ton of anxiety. And then you get Barbie and it's all pink. And I think there's something super deep about a hunger for that."

She said some of the brand's power comes from its complicated legacy. Barbie is closely linked with perfection, with her tiny waist, beautiful home and handsome boyfriend. Yet, Barbie was also unmarried and became an astronaut before the first moon landing.

"There is something culturally powerful about living in that contradictory space," Fournier said.

Inside the Bloomingdale's pop-up shop in New York City, shoppers can find an exclusive Barbie collection of clothing and accessories from private label Aqua. The retailer's website and nine stores carry the collection.

Chasing the Barbie bump and beyond

Other retailers have run a similar playbook with branding inspired by pop culture.

Tapestry-owned Coach has collaborated with beloved brands and celebrities, including Disney and comic strip Peanuts. It had a collection of clothing and accessories inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the late New York artist who became famous in the 1980s for his edgy and graffiti-inspired designs. Coach recently launched a new collection with actress Kirsten Dunst.

Coach CEO Todd Kahn said the company carefully chooses which partnerships make sense. He said he has enjoyed seeing other brands' Barbie collaborations, but Coach decided against a partnership.

"So often, people use collaborations for a quick spike," he said. "We're interested in long-term sustainability. That's why with our collaborations, we've become very selective on them. We use them to help bring a new audience to the table. And then we measure how sticky they are afterwards, which is super important."

For example, he said Coach's Basquiat items attracted new and more engaged customers, brought in about 10% more Gen Z and millennial customers than its mainline collections and enticed them to pay some of Coach's highest price points.

Some brands appear to be getting a Barbie bump, but it remains to be seen whether those customers will stick around.

Berman, longtime chief marketing officer of Bloomingdale's, said the chain sees an increase in store and website traffic when it has collaborations. That's why the company's flagship has The Carousel, a dedicated pop-up space, which can also be shopped online.

The retailer has blended fashion, a well-recognized brand and a memorable experience many times before. It had a pop-up inspired by Netflix's hit series, "Bridgerton." Many years ago, it had a "Moulin Rouge" themed pop-up, complete with can-can dancers and an appearance by the movie's star, Nicole Kidman.

Aldo's Amalfitano declined to share recent sales numbers or its forecast for the year. Yet, similar to other retailers, the footwear and accessories brand has felt the pullback in discretionary spending, she said.

She hopes elevated sales and shopper engagement will continue, even when the Barbie merchandise is gone.

"That's a burning question," she said.

— CNBC's Caitlin Freda and Courtney Reagan contributed to this report.