What it’s like to buy a $120 American Girl Doll (and $77 in accessories)

The red pillars gleam at the end of the rotunda like a beacon. My seven-year-old niece clutches her perfectly good, well-loved Walmart knock-off My Life doll in barely-harnessed anticipation. We have to wait for my boyfriend to park the car, and then the three of us are going to shop the American Girl Doll for the first time. 

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the sensation, American Girl Dolls are touted on their website as “Journeys to America's past, stories featuring girls today, the chance to nurture a newborn -- American Girl® dolls offer it all!”

In my words, it’s a cultural phenomenon that gets into little girls’ heads like some heady combination of sugar cereal, Happy Meals, candy bars, and pink party dresses -- only far more expensive. 

A $120 doll isn’t in my pay scale, nor will it probably ever be, but my niece lives outside of the country and I only get to see her every three months. When I find myself blurting out that I’ll take her to the American Girl Store at the Mall of America when she visits, it’s the only thing she can think about from the moment the plane touches down. Her mom gives me an eye slice. For years she’s had the kid duly convinced that the Walmart and Target knockoffs are “American Girls,” and bonus, she can get at least two dolls for the price of one. Now, she’ll be forever disabused of that notion. We’re in the American Doll universe now, and it might be a tough place to escape.

As we enter, we’re awash in a glow of pink. We can see that the store is two levels, and it’s difficult to know where to begin. If you spent the entire day, you’d be hard pressed to take it all in. In addition to dolls of most hair and skin colors (though there are no dolls with pigmentation that goes darker than light milk chocolate) and a line of newborn baby dolls, there are countless permutations of outfits, shoes, jewelry, eyeglasses, sports equipment, and accessories that I could never myself hope to own in this lifetime.

There are dolls with many handicaps, dolls with no hair, dolls on vacation in the tropics, and dolls running their own juice bar (complete with money). American girl dolls can be Native American, mid-century modern, and 1950s in a poodle skirt with their own seaside diner. They can dress up as Bride of Frankenstein. There are movie theaters and flatscreen TVs with DVD collections.

Accessories further include (but are by all means not limid to) tiny passion fruits, a Brazilian-style grill with a faux fire that lights up, an acai bowl with a spoon for digging in, and an “allergy free lunch” including a medical bracelet and allergy stickers “to keep her safe while she snacks” plus (!) a faux allergy shot, just in case. The $395 rainforest house set complete with outdoor shower is on backorder until September.

My niece is clearly overwhelmed, and its difficult to know where to look and where to walk. When I reveal the news that she’ll be getting a doll (I’d been keeping it a secret up until then) she seems more overwhelmed than excited. We begin the process of trying to narrow down our selection to a single doll plus three accessories. I calculate that if I can get out the door under $200 I’ll be satisfied.

It takes about another hour to make the selection, and she keeps trying to shake me down for yet one or two more things (naturally, the products are displayed in dazzling arrays of pairings. Earrings are studded shinily on fetching earring trees, pets come with their own line of powder pink leashes, pet beds, and ballerina outfits. There are child-sized outfits to match those of the dolls).

After an agonizingly long time finally choosing a set of doll-sized earrings, and an unfortunate moment when I break the news that a $58 picnic set is too expensive, we approach the checkout.

American Girl shop employees are preternaturally cheerful, like beaming junior Stepford wives.

“Have we found some perfect things?!”

We have. But before we can pay, we’re offered a specially discounted outfit, because we’re spending over $150. Would we like this as well? I guess we would. And guess what? In order to apply the earrings, the dolls ears will have to be pierced! In the Doll Salon! It’s $16, but to soothe the burn a little, a set of earrings comes with the price (roughly the same price it costs to pierce human ears with starter earrings at the nearby Claire’s Boutique). When I say we’ll skip the original earrings in that case, my niece is dismayed. “What?”

I try to distract her with our trip to salon. On the way there, we pass the cafe, complete with doll-sized high-chairs, which is mercifully closed for the evening. Once in the salon, our doll is whisked to the back and returns with jewelry embedded in the ears. There’s no real experience to be had for our $16, but for an additional $10 we could get a doll hairdo, or a ponytail hairpiece for $20, or a $15 highlight.

My niece informs me that she pierced her other doll’s ears herself.

Hefting the ruby red bag with the expensive paper outside, I glance at the receipt and see that I narrowly made my $200 threshold by $2.70. There’s a rewards program, but the points don’t get “banked” for 36 hours. So I won’t be able to use the discount today, but the dangled carrot of a $10 discount puts in motion another visit.

As we’re strategically dumped out at the entrance of Nickelodean Universe, I feel strangely empty. I’m not sure if I saw my niece smile much throughout the experience, and the expressions I saw on most of the other kids and their parents (interestingly, it was mostly dads) was some combination of disorientation and dismay. The kids can’t help but calculate all the things they must leave behind; parents are simultaneously calculating how much they can get away with leaving behind.

As we buy tickets for the rides, my niece races off to the Avatar Airbender, absentmindedly handing me the doll as she goes.

I stroke its silky hair and heft the bag. My niece squeals in delight as she sails through the air.

American Girl Store

Mall of America

5160 Center Court 

Level 1, East