Skip to main content

The hot toy of 2023? Barbie still wants to party

Mattel is capitalizing on the 64-year-old doll via this year’s hit movie, toy sales, merchandising and pop-up restaurants. 

By Gita Sitaramiah Star Tribune








NOVEMBER 30, 2023 — 5:00AM
Nevin Kennedy looked at Barbie dolls on Nov. 21 at Target in Edina with his daughter Luna, 4. Son Bart, 6 months, isn’t pictured.

Ellorie Jacobs loves everything Barbie.

“The dolls are super fun to play with, and it’s about girl power,” the 9-year-old from Lakeville said during lunch with her mom recently at the Malibu Barbie Cafe at Mall of America.

The blockbuster movie released in July has boosted California toymaker Mattel’s Barbie brand. And while it’s been a stalwart on toy store shelves for decades, there’s undoubtedly a new fervor around the doll and anything related this holiday season.

Barbie sales jumped 25% for the July-August combined months vs. the same two-month period a year ago, according to Circana. It was the No. 1 doll globally in the third quarter (July through September), per Circana.

The buzz has continued into the colder months. As one example: The Toy Insider’s Hot 20 list includes the Barbie Dreamhouse Playset for 3- to 4-year-olds.

“It’s absolutely good for Mattel because the number of brands that have existed for 60 years or more and continue to be reinvented is very small,” said Chris Byrne, a toy consultant behind “G.I. Joe is five years younger but doesn’t have the cultural cache.”

Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler created Barbie — quintessentially recognized as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, unrealistically proportioned adult woman — after watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls and deciding girls would have more fun with three-dimensional ones, according to the National Toy Hall of Fame. Barbie was an immediate hit in 1959.

The doll has evolved culturally and professionally after feminists criticized early Barbies for creating impractical physical standards for women and focusing only on fashion. Now there are Barbies of all sizes, hair colors, races and genders. Dolls come in enough variations to connect with any child, and there are plenty of accompanying accessories and merchandise, from the Barbie Dreamhouse to branded makeup to pop-up restaurants such as the Malibu Barbie Cafe.

The Barbie boom has come at a good time for Mattel. Toymakers overall have seen softer sales this year as many households trim spending while still having stockpiles of children’s play goods purchased during the pandemic.

U.S. toy industry sales revenue declined by 8% through September, compared with the same nine-month period in 2022, Circana reported.

After the Barbie movie craze, Mattel reported in October a 9% net sales increase in the third quarter, “with significant contributions from box-office participation” and consumer product partnerships, Chief Executive Ynon Kreiz said during a call with analysts.

“The Barbie movie, Mattel’s first major theatrical release, became a global cultural phenomenon, breaking numerous box office records and becoming the highest-grossing film of 2023,” he said during that call.


Barbie dolls and accessories were on sale Black Friday at Target in Edina. There are Barbies of all sizes, hair colors, races and genders.

Barbie is all about possibility, Byrne said.

“People love expressing that through the backpacks and the T-shirts that do very well and, yes, Mattel does get a portion of that revenue,” he said.

The movie release generated buzz and broadened Barbie’s fan base even further.

After the movie’s debut, Marl Davidson, a Tampa Bay collector and dealer of Barbies for 36 years, saw a boost in her traffic.

“That movie was totally, totally the best thing that ever happened to Barbie, for people to understand her,” Davidson said, “and, Ken, the poor guy. We all love Ken, but Barbie will never marry him!”

Thanks to the renewed excitement, Legacy Toys’ three Twin Cities-area locations saw Barbie dolls uncharacteristically fly off the shelves in the summer, and the momentum has continued for Christmas-time when they are always popular gifts.

“We’ve been selling them like crazy,” said Jaylynn Speidel, a Mall of America store manager.

Mattel hired Bucket Listers to launch limited runs of Malibu Barbie Cafe in New York and Chicago before unveiling the Mall of America location, open until mid-January, said Rachel Rendon, a Bucket Listers events supervisor.

Even the pink paint receives corporate approval to make sure it’s on-brand for the cafe, modeled around Malibu Barbie, with a 1970s California vibe.

“Mattel makes sure the colors are exactly as you remember, and the feel is perfect,” Rendon said.

Jacobs, the 9-year-old, called the pop-up restaurant — where staff address everyone as “Barbie” — “amazing.”

Danielle Betker and her 7-year-old daughter, Mila, shopped the mall on a visit from Hutchinson after lunch at the Malibu Barbie Cafe. Betker wore a Chanel-inspired dress in Barbie pink, and Mila sported a Barbie bomber jacket.

“So many of us 30-somethings and 40-somethings grew up with Barbie. I feel like it was such a huge part of my life,” she said. “Introducing my daughter to Barbie, seeing the movie, have been so much fun.”

Hope Simpara, a University of Arizona associate professor of practice in fashion industry science and technology, saw Barbie-inspired creations on runways precede the movie release as high fashion often forecasts major cultural trends.

Her own introduction to fashion came from dressing up a Barbie doll as a child, a phenomenon she sees among her students as well.

“From a fashion perspective, Barbie is an icon,” Simpara said. “The first introduction to what fashion means to young girls and children in general is clothes for Barbie because it introduces them to it via play.”

Gita Sitaramiah is the Star Tribune consumer reporter. GitaSitaramiah