updated 8/13/2007 12:09:34 PM ET 2007-08-13T16:09:34

Toy store aisles are getting a multicultural makeover.

Bolstered by the success of Nickelodeon’s popular bilingual children’s character, Dora the Explorer, and the spending power of the nation’s growing minority population, toy retailers across the country are filling their shelves with dolls whose skin colors and facial features reflect the girls and boys who play with them.

Although black and Hispanic dolls have been around for decades, the newer incarnations try harder at authenticity, rather than simply tinting the hair and skin from “white” doll molds.

Now, discount retailer Kmart hopes to cash in on a growing appetite for ethnic toys among minority consumers, and their rising spending power. It’s launching its own initiative this month, putting dozens of multicultural dolls on shelves in each of its 1,400 stores.

Although other retailers are stocking more multicultural dolls — often in predominantly minority neighborhoods — Kmart claims it’s the first mass-market retailer to have such a wide selection available in every store.

When the rollout is completed next week, Kmart stores will sell nearly four dozen types of ethnic dolls — a nearly fourfold increase from what’s currently available. The dolls are flanked by an advertising campaign in the store’s circulars and designed to appeal to black, Hispanic and Asian parents.

“We needed to be relevant to them,” said Philipp Elliott, a toy merchandise manager at Kmart, a subsidiary of Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp.

Becoming relevant to minority shoppers can reap big benefits. About one in three Americans is a minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2006 and 2011, the spending power of the country’s blacks, Asians, Native Americans and multiracial shoppers is expected to grow 38 percent, to $1.9 trillion. Meanwhile Hispanic buying power alone is projected to grow a formidable 48 percent, to almost $1.2 trillion, according to data from The University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth.

By 2050, minorities will account for half of U.S. residents, according to Census Bureau projections.

Kmart executives hope the doll campaign will bring renewed foot traffic to their stores, which saw sales revenue fall 2.3 percent last year. Last month, Sears warned second-quarter earnings will likely fall well below expectations because of more disappointing sales at Kmart and its sister Sears stores.

Kmart officials declined to release figures showing how much the chain has invested in the doll project, which includes brands such as Baby Abuelita and Mattel Inc.’s Rebelde dolls, as well as the newly designed proprietary Just Girlz collection.

But the retailer likely faces an uphill battle as it tries to woo shoppers away from heavyweight competitors Wal-Mart and Toys R’ Us, whose large selections of the popular Barbie and Bratz dolls give them an even bigger advantage in appealing to minority shoppers.

“I think they’re going down a very tough road,” said toy analyst Jim Silver, editor of Toy Wishes magazine. “Why would I buy a generic ethnic doll over this major brand that has all these accessories?”

Popular dolls need more than pretty looks. Instead, it’s a combination of brand names and cool accessories — from doll houses to roller skates — that attract children to dolls.

Just ask 27-year-old Calumet Park resident Marie Jones, whose daughters eyed the new dolls inside a Kmart store in Chicago’s south suburbs last week.

“If they’re pretty, they’re pretty,” said Jones after watching Jade Lynch, 8, and Imani Simmons, 6, play with the new dolls. “They picked up the black ones, they picked up the white ones. They look at the things that they come with. If they can comb their hair, that’s the doll they want.”

There are no solid data on the size of the nation’s ethnic doll selection, but experts say the category is booming after a series of flops that received tepid enthusiasm from shoppers.

“People want a doll and a story that reflects who they are,” said Julie Parks, a spokeswoman for Mattel’s American Girl, which includes Native American, Hispanic and black historical dolls, as well as dolls with myriad skin, eye and hair color combinations. “There is something about seeing a reflection of themselves in that character and in that doll that they can relate to.”

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien said the chain’s Hispanic doll selection has more than tripled in the past year while the total assortment of black baby dolls has more than doubled.

All told, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has more than 70 varieties of ethnic dolls, but it doesn’t carry the full selection in every store. Instead, it often stocks many of them in neighborhoods where there are more minority shoppers.

Wayne, N.J.-based Toys “R” Us Inc., which follows a similar approach when stocking its more than 100 types of multicultural dolls, said its Hispanic selection has soared in the past two years along with smaller increases in the more established black doll products.

“Dora was really the key driver,” said spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh.

The next generation of dolls have diverse eyes, noses and mouths — instead of the traditional “white” dolls whose skin was dyed and whose hair was tinted in a darker shade.

“If you’re a little girl of color, this is your year,” said Denise Gary Robinson, president of DollsLikeMe.com, an online specialty doll boutique that specializes in ethnic dolls, toys and gifts. “I see companies now really putting forth the effort. I see designers going back to the drawing board and saying the old colored-plastic routine isn’t working.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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