It's a Barbie world online

Mattel Inc.’s Barbie is joining the Internet age.

Mattel Inc.’s Barbie is joining the Internet age.

The US toymaker today unveiled Barbie Girls, a multi-pronged brand that features a free website, BarbieGirls.com, that will allow children to create their own virtual characters, design their own room and try on clothes at a cyber mall.

This summer, Mattel will introduce a Barbie-inspired handheld MP3 music device to interact with the website and unlock even more content.

Mattel hopes that by blending girls’ love of music, fashion and the internet, it will keep 10-year-old girls interested in the iconic name.

The launch of Barbie Girl is the latest effort by a toy company to make its brand more interactive with the internet and reclaim children who are growing out of toys faster and seeking other play options, like online chatting and iPods.

But industry experts say that the experience offered by Barbie Girls is much deeper than what’s out there.

"It’s a much richer experience" than highly popular toys like Gant’s Webkinz, plush pets that come alive online with a secret password, said Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy consultant who was at the launch event.

Chuck Scothon, general manager and senior vice president of Mattel’s brands, believes Barbie Girls, set to launch in about a dozen other countries this fall - is 'revolutionising' the way girls play. He added that it represents the first global online virtual world exclusively for girls.

'We were listening to girls and seeing the way they were changing,' said Scothon said. 'The brand has relevance, but we needed to provide a new way to engage older girls'.

The launch comes as Mattel has been making inroads in turning around sales of the iconic brand, hurt by fierce competition from MGA Entertainment’s pouty Bratz dolls.

While domestic sales of the classic fashion doll plunged 21% in the first quarter, according to a Mattel announcement last week, strong popularity for the Barbie doll abroad offset the domestic decline and translated to 2 percent growth worldwide.

Today Scothon dismissed Barbie’s disappointing US performance as just a 'hiccup' and said that the brand continues to see progress.

Scothon noted that BarbieGirls.com targets the 7 to 12 age group, the same age range Barbie.com attracts. But BarbieGirls.com provides a much more interactive experience than Barbie.com, where play is limited to online games and other content.

With BarbieGirls.com, girls can customise their characters’ outfits down to the puff on the sleeve and can customise their own virtual rooms. The doll-inspired handheld portable device will be available in July at an expected retail cost of around £30 (€44).

It is designed to unlock even more content and activities on BarbieGirls.com, like adopting a virtual pet and buying clothes using virtual money.

Mattel executives said that Barbie Girl is designed to be a safe place for girls to interact online. The site features word filters to keep chat secure and prevent the exchange of personal information.

Girls also can lock or open their virtual room to other characters. A more personal chat is available to those who both have a Barbie Girl device and who have physically connected their devices into a friend’s computer docking station.

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