Multiracial Pricing Disparity in Doll House Families: Marketing versus Reality

Photo of the Caucasian and African-American Ryan's Room family doll sets with the shadowy outline of puzzle pieces over the mother, daughter and father dolls.

Our daughter could be mistaken for Caucasian at the moment from photos on this blog, but she identifies herself as having brown skin. It’s darker than dad’s skin, and is slowly becoming a beautiful tan-olive color. Sorry, that difference costs extra at the toy store.

We recently experienced racial pricing disparity at our local toy store. We were there to buy a doll house, which comes with a set of basic furniture. The only thing missing was people.

We wanted to buy doll house dolls that resemble our family. As it happens, I’m white and my wife is black. Or if you ask my daughter, I’m pink and my wife is brown.

The dolls were from a popular brand, Ryan’s Room, although the doll house was a different brand, Plan Toys. No problem though, because the dolls are interchangeable.

But wait, the dolls are sold in family sets: Hispanic-American, African-American, Asian-American and Caucasian. (I guess Ryan’s Room assumes all Caucasians are Americans. Ask me for my hyphen and I’ll tell you I’m European-American.)

A family doll set consists of a mother, father, boy, girl, grandmother and grandfather. Six dolls for $20.

Plan Toys also sells dolls in single race family sets, although its black family is mysteriously labeled “ethnic family.”

So, to assemble a doll set with a white dad and a black mom we would have to buy two entire family sets, spending twice as much money for a lot of extra dolls we didn’t need.

But wait, the store also sells individual dolls separated from their packaging. The marketer’s description posted on Amazon describes them as “extra dolls for a room full of fun” rather than “the other dolls you might need to make a realistic family set.”

What’s realistic? According to a statistic cited in a 2003 Christian Science Monitor article, 1 in 15 marriages in America is interracial, up from 1 in 23 in 1990. Just 40 years ago this month interracial marriage became legal. According to the National Journal, 7 percent of Americans have a multiracial background and in another 40 years the figure will be 21 percent.

Now, if we bought dolls by the store’s $5 each mix-and-match method, a mom, dad and daughter doll would run us $15 while other consumers could buy a full 6-doll single-race family for $20. In other words, a complete multiracial family costs $10 more than a single-race family.

The individual dolls didn’t even come in separate packaging — they were loose in a Ryan’s Room-branded mix-and-match box — so packaging doesn’t explain the price disparity.

I hate being short-shrifted. I insisted on going home and searching for an online retailer who specializes in mix-and-match dolls for multiracial families at rates comparable to the single-race family price. I came up empty. Individual dolls were still in the $5 to $6 range.

Hmm. Do we buy a white family? Do we buy a black family? Rather than have one parent’s doll skin color not match, we decided to make none of the dolls match so our daughter would not even think about it. We bought the Asian family.


30 Responses to “Multiracial Pricing Disparity in Doll House Families: Marketing versus Reality”

  1. Joe says:

    Regarding a company calling a certain color of doll “ethnic”, bear in mind that many of these items are made in China. Chinese-English translations being what they are, sometimes you can get odd English names for things.

    For example, I read a story a ways back in which an African-American woman was dismayed to find the “N” word and a furnitrure lable after she purchased a new couch.

    June 25th, 2007 at 7:37 am

  2. Roberto says:

    Honestly, it isn’t just a multiracial issue, it’s a multi-color issue. My wife and I are both Hispanic, but my skin is light and hers is dark (she looks black). Same concept, but ya know. It stinks for us because we really wanted a wedding cake topper with a bride and groom, but couldn’t find one that had a “multiracial/multicolor” couple. Haha.

    June 25th, 2007 at 10:01 am

  3. Akagi says:

    I think you must have too much time on your hands to be making such a big deal over such trivia.

    Life is way too short to worry about what color dolls are. Good grief.

    June 25th, 2007 at 10:59 am

  4. shirky says:

    try being a multiracial two-mom family.
    how many dumb sets would we have to buy?
    no thanks. he can use the little animals. I’ll be the octopus.

    and I had to make our own wedding topper.

    June 25th, 2007 at 11:35 am

  5. kelli says:

    You should make your own dollhouse dolls:

    June 25th, 2007 at 1:58 pm

  6. Cathy says:

    Hey, good solution. I was reading along thinking, hmm, what *is* the answer? If (when?) we have the same problem (I’m Asian, dh is white), we’ll probably do the same thing.

    June 25th, 2007 at 7:59 pm

  7. Shevvi says:

    1- What color the dolls are matter a lot. Children (most) want dolls to play with that reflect their reality especially in the 5-8 year old range.

    2- We are an African-American family with a range of skin tones and a close friend that range from typcial looking Norwegian to Nigerians. We ended up buy the A-A family and another $40 of white, Asian and Hispanic dolls so that my daughter could have her full spectrum to play with. At first we just had the A-A family and she loved it but when she was about 4.5 she requested the additonal dolls a few at a time to portray others she loved.

    June 26th, 2007 at 8:01 am

  8. eliaday says:

    well, luckily for me, as a single mom, i’ll have an extra male doll to throw around. =P

    i don’t think this is a trivial issue at all – i think it means a lot to kids to see their experiences reflected in books, their toys etc. the idea of how dolls are packaged presupposes that there is a “standard” kind of family.

    i mean, how hard would it be to just charge $20 and let you pick out whatever 6 dolls that you want?

    June 26th, 2007 at 12:58 pm

  9. Keda says:

    Did you ask the toy shop is you could ‘mix and match’ a doll family?

    I agree with others that it’s really important for little ones to see toys that reflect their experience. We are a multiracial family (I’m white, my husband is Indian) and our little boy is not aware of racial differences yet (1 yr old) but I’m always on the lookout for brown skinned boy dolls.

    BTW a quick Google shows there are all sorts of interracial wedding cake toppers available but when I was looking, before my own wedding they were generally custom made, requiring longish lead times and plenty of $$.

    June 27th, 2007 at 5:07 am

  10. wdskmom says:

    I think society has become overly sensitive when it comes to the requirement of every product & situation to be ‘politically correct’. It cannot be expected that every family dynamic, of which there are MANY, be represented at all times. Can you blame a company for selecting the most common (keep in mind this goes beyond your locale)? Can you blame them for discounting for volume packaging (which is the case with anything you buy)? Instead of complaining about having to spend more money, why not use it as a learning tool for the kids. Why not lay out the facts & figures to them (done age appropriately). The same as a same sex or one parent family may find it more difficult to work around situations such as Father’s/Mother’s Day, we as parents must be responsible for directing and teaching our children… not just point fingers.

    June 27th, 2007 at 10:23 am

  11. AJ says:

    It’s not a politically correct issue to want dolls for your child that resemble your child.

    It strikes at the heart of issues such as how a child develops concepts of personal body image and beauty. Should a black mother be happy when a daughter tells her she doesn’t want to be black (because society has ingrained imagery that white skin is the ideal)? It happens.

    I believe it’s NOT asking a lot to have a retailer who already makes multi-color skinned dolls and who already sells those dolls in packages as well as individually (mix-and-match) to sell them at the same price point. The message I receive is not one of volume packaging, but one of assumptions about the make-up of today’s families and not caring about (or conspiracy theorists might say, exploiting) the fact that multiracial families will pay a lot more money because of the company’s pricing plan.

    June 27th, 2007 at 10:38 am

  12. wdskmom says:

    The politically correct issue is not getting the proper doll, as it is available. It’s that it must be done individually. I don’t believe that the retailer, or the toy company that makes them should be responsible for providing every family situation in their packaging ie. 2 dads & kids; 2 moms & kids; ‘race 1′ mom, ‘race 3′ dad & kids, etc etc. Honestly, aren’t there bigger issues in life… such as true racism.

    June 27th, 2007 at 11:01 am

  13. AJ says:

    My point boiled down is: sell individual dolls at the same rate as dolls in the family pack. I’m not saying “be responsible for providing every family situation.” I merely want equal pricing for the dolls they already sell, to not shaft multi-race families and children who have friends who are of different races.

    In other words, sell based on the reality of today, not the reality of 50 years ago. Our country’s diversity continues to expand. As time goes on, their marketing plan will only makes less and less sense and fit fewer and fewer consumers. My issue is pricing and grouping, not how they’ve chosen to paint the dolls.

    June 27th, 2007 at 11:16 am

  14. SobaFett says:

    I work in an independent toy store in cambridge, ma–just the type of place where this issue comes up. I see all combinations of families in our store. It’s something I’ve come to appreciate about our clientele. I’ve had a similar issue come up recently about puzzles. We get most of our puzzles from Ravensburger, which is German, and I have yet to see any non-white people depicted in their puzzles. After a mom asked about more diversity in the puzzle section, I did a little looking online, and wasn’t able to find much for younger kids, although there were a number of 500 or 1000 piece puzzles with African-American themes and artwork.

    Other European toy manufacturers are notorious for being all white. Try to find a Black or Asian Playmobil figure–they don’t seem to exist at all. Mighty World, which has always struck me as a Playmobil knockoff, gets props for having a more diverse line-up, although their only female rescue worker is an EMT, an issue for another day.

    We do have dolls of different races, both for the dollhouses, and the larger baby dolls. I wish we could sell a mix-and-match family at the same price, but we’re somewhat constrained by the wholesale prices on the dolls.

    June 27th, 2007 at 11:36 am

  15. adrienne says:

    AJ: Your comments make me think of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

    I think there is credence in having a doll that looks like you- think how much people pay for American Girl Dolls who resemble their recipients, My Twinn dolls (creepy), and Cabbage Patch dolls at the Babyland Hospital ( $285!!!)

    As children we wanted toys that were like we were then or like who aspired to be. I personally wanted to be a white polar bear, Wonder Woman, or Princess Leia, but I knew a lot of kids who longed for a Cabbage Patch that resembled themselves.

    If you end up buying multiple sets, I would auction off the extras at decent rates on ebay (and maybe help another family out of this dilemma).

    June 27th, 2007 at 6:23 pm

  16. Mama2One says:

    Coming from an early-childhood education background, I think it is important that no matter the child or family members’ race(s) they have a variety of playthings reflecting different races.

    For a preschool to be accredited by the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) they need a variety of races reflected in the baby dolls, doll house dolls, books, pictures, and even the play food. The children in these preschools are coming in contact with these playthings on a daily basis, so why not reflect that in their playthings at home as well?

    Good for you for buying an Asian family for your daughter! I hope you add more sets of dolls, too.

    June 27th, 2007 at 10:38 pm

  17. cjay says:

    How hard would it be for distributers to market a “create your own family line”? In reality, America is THE melting pot and if you wanted to get technical everyone’s got a little color to them..(how many of you are cherokee out there…half the population) So to head off any disagreeable situtations I think a nice big bucket of dolls in tons of skin colors (as apposed to races) would settle well with everyone. Because as the man stated above…there are tons of tonality’s to even the “colored” folk. And children do want play with dolls that look like them and their parents. I know that as a child, my family set the standard for me as to what a family should be like, mine being large (ten members…so that would have cost my parents $50 to get our family) and each being very different, my dad was Native American and my mom remarried a “caucasian”. I have black hair and my baby sister is blond and blue eyed. So now not only is my family larger than the six pack but we would of had to buy extra dolls to blend the family. Besides im sure the toy company would save some money on packaging if they just shipped them all in one box and let people mix and match. Then who could complain? Maybe someone saying they shipped more of one ethnicity than the other….we as a people will always find something to complain about.

    July 9th, 2007 at 11:56 am

  18. Teri Dix says:

    I totally concur with the notion that “we” need dolls who look like “us”. As a teeny – tiny point: I am a silver haired granma now, but I’ve been so delighted to find blonde haired / green-eyed dolls lately to match what I looked like as a child… (my dolls all had blue eyes of course !…) Thank goodness brown-eyed dolls are also being made now. I just met a lovely lady with an adorable daughter from Sudan, Africa. It is such a thrill to give her brown dolls from my collection. Then her 7 yr old niece needed a brown doll “I have never had a doll that looks like me she” she exclaimed! Fortunately, I had a perfect doll for her too !!! Teri

    July 18th, 2007 at 12:32 pm

  19. geenie says:

    Does anyone have a list of websites for multiracial baby and kids toys?

    I love the high quality European toys, but even the mice are “white”. (Seriously, how hard would it be to have a “caramel” “brown” and “black” option?)

    I have been trying to collect toys with a variety of skin tones, yet when I look at my cache of toys, they are all light-skin, light hair and light eyes.

    I am concerned that collectively, these toys,whether representing humans or animals, send the message that light skin/hair/eyes is preferable. In addition, the children in my life have a variety of skin tones, as do their families and neighborhoods. While at times I find the one “brown” doll amid one hundred “white” dolls, the variety, in terms of looks, types of playthings, etc, is severely lacking.

    I’d really appreciate websites, catalogues, etc of toys with a variety of skintones. I would like to purchase these toys and patronage manufacturers and retailers who meet this need.

    Thank you.

    November 27th, 2007 at 8:06 am

  20. Myra says:

    If you are buying a doll house made by Plan Toys I imagine the extra $20 for the second family wasn’t that much of a financial burden. Plan Toys aren’t cheap. This strikes me as another example of multiracial victimization that is just so overdone.
    Do you realize how privileged you are to even be worrying about the skin color of your child’s dolls to go along with your super expensive doll house ? Full disclaimer: we just bought a Selecta doll house (they’re not cheap, either).

    I am a fairly dark-skinned black woman whose mother is white and father is black. I married a white man and now have a daughter who is brown and a son who could pass for old-school Swedish — fair skin, blue eyes and white-blonde hair. I would like to get a doll set for our new doll house that mirrors our family, but I am not going to protest if it may cost a bit more or take more effort. I grew up — a biracial child — in the 80s with whatever doll my mother could afford — a black rub-a-dub baby. And my white grandmother made me a white doll that my daughter now plays with.

    I am a well-adjusted, productive member of society. Your children will be fine with whatever racial/ethnic configuration you find. I am sure you are doing countless other things to make your child feel secure in her/his mixed-race identity. And good for you for doing so. If, as a parent, this is enough of a struggle to warrant an entire article, count your blessings. Maybe you could donate the extra dolls to the Salvation Army.

    January 4th, 2008 at 7:24 pm

  21. AJ says:

    Myra, I stand by the issues I raised, regardless of one’s financial status.

    January 4th, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  22. amywithlemon says:

    regardling playmobil people:

    in my kids christmas nativity set, the three wise men are all different ‘colors’…. one is white, one is brown, one is orange-ish.

    i suppose now one has to get worried over representing the various religions in playmobil now.

    i totally agree with the blog authors point… just price each doll the same, and let people create their own sets.

    as for diversity, my family is the “typical” mom/dad, two kids, white people family. we have made it a point to never refer to people by race (as in, “that black guy”). i always find it awesome when my daughter (age 7) describes her friends as “you know her mom, Lyndsey, with the light brown hair and skin”. i think it’s great to just enjoy the various ‘colors’ represented in our humanity, and to not let our children pick up on our ‘issues’ with them. my daughter has all sorts of dolls. my son has all sorts of dinosaurs, as he would prefer to represent the diversity of the dinosaurs in our world.

    just my two cents.

    January 5th, 2008 at 5:43 pm

  23. Melanie says:

    amywithlemon, I know that you mean well to tell your children to not refer to someone’s race, but that ignores the greater issue; it’s not that noticing race is the problem, it is that historically people have been treated differently because of their race. What you are doing is akin to the bad old days when people would go out of the way to not mention that someone was in a wheelchair, or blind, or whatever. I think that the attitude should be that someone is black or white or asian and that’s that. No positive or negative value, just a fact.

    I was always given black dolls when I was a child but the ones that I really loved and looked most like our family were the Sasha dolls that had brown skin and brunette hair that were actually the “white” dolls in the line!! I am not sure where those English-made dolls got such a tan?!

    January 9th, 2008 at 8:02 pm

  24. amywithlemon says:


    you totally missed me.

    we don’t TEACH our children to not refer to someone’s race.

    we have firstly taught them to appreciate people for who they ARE… and not what color their skin is.

    as in,

    i teach them to see the kid in the wheelchair as being another kid like them who likes dinosaurs and power rangers…and happens to be in a wheel chair. not ‘that kid in a wheel chair’.

    people always find something to get hung up on.

    isn’t it enough that my kids just like people innocently and don’t have connotations about them based on race/ability? frankly, i’m proud of that. not of ME…. of them.

    and duh…
    “I think that the attitude should be that someone is black or white or asian and that’s that. No positive or negative value, just a fact.”

    that’s exactly what we do.

    March 13th, 2008 at 10:32 pm

  25. Jennifer says:

    I have 2 sons, but all of the “family” packs are a son and a daughter. Was I wrong in having a second boy? Of course not. Individual dolls, which I can’t even seem to find, should be more readily available. I understand the difference between bulk pricing and individual pricing. In that case, don’t bulk any of the “families”. That would be fair, and the companies would probably make more money in doing so.

    November 28th, 2008 at 2:12 pm

  26. Keith says:

    I’m black and my wife’s white. Our 6yo daughter has a Fisher-Price dollhouse handed down to her by her 15yo sister, along with quite an assortment of figures, black and white, that went along with it. She has requested, for Christmas, a “dark-skinned man doll” so that all the people in her house can get married. Upon looking into this a little more, she wants the dark-skinned man to marry the dark-skinned lady, so that they can all match. Surely she didn’t learn that everyone has to match from us.

    But that’s not the point here. The point is how hard it is to find a black man doll for what is now the “Loving Family” dollhouse. Or at least how hard it is *now*. I think it was a lot easier 10 years ago. Visits to the local WalMart and ToysRUs have only shown up white two-person combinations. And the marketers were very smart in making the two-person combos an adult and a kid, so that you could mix and match – *if* you could find a black or asian combo.

    We did find a dark-skinned adult male/female set by some other company, but I hesitate to break them up. It just sort of feels like breaking up a family during slavery. So I’m absolutely delighted to find out about the dolls you’ve mentioned.

    Now…about that whole “it costs more to assemble *my* family” thing. It’s not racism. It’s simple statistics, marketing, and volume packaging. If 1 in 15 marriages is multiracial these days, then 14 in 15 will be mono-racial, and the manufacturers certainly won’t lose any money by making 93% of their doll sets that way. And let’s face it, even for the families that are mono-racial, the dolls don’t often match. Think hair and eye color. The other 7%, well, who knows how long they’ll sit on the shelf at the local WalMart or ToysRUs, unsold. Or maybe, I wasn’t able to find any because the 7% got snatched up really fast.

    But about volume packaging. I was out shopping for Halloween candy a few months ago, and it was apparent (and expected) that I could buy a 30-pack selection of certain Hershey products for a lot less than I could if I selected the exact same items one by one. Similarly, the 15 pack of single-serving bags of Doritos or Fritos or Cheetos costs less than buying 15 of the exact same bags of Ito family members separately. If I want 15 bags of Doritos, I’m fine. It’s when I want to mix and match within the 15 that it starts to cost more – and it may indeed cost me less to just buy a 15-pack of each than to mix and match the separates.

    So this isn’t a doll ethnicity issue. Apparently, as most people are happy with the pre-packaged Hershey and Frito-Lay collections, most are also happy with the pre-packaged doll collections. And it is one of the economies of scale that collections cost less to make and distribute than singles. They probably also incur less “shrinkage.”

    Me, I’m happy just to know that the dolls are available, and that I might not have to split up a family. Do I care about paying a little more for a singleton? No; and this is because I understand about buying singletons in other situations.

    I think that people are being way too sensitive about this whole thing. Hmm…I suppose I should complain because the one dark-skinned man doll she has isn’t bald, with a beard and glasses like me. But then again, I frequently refer my 6yo to the works of the philosopher Jager, who said that you can’t always get what you want.

    Now, I’m gonna get me one of those dolls.

    November 30th, 2008 at 10:12 pm

  27. Megan says:

    I know this is an older post but I was so excited, I wanted to let you know what I found. I was having an awful time finding a dollhouse set for my son that matched our family. Well, is the answer. They sell a mix and match set of bride/groom dolls so I emailed them to see if they would mix and match their family sets and they said yes. Easy as that. Just email them , maybe if enough people email them they will start listing it on the site. BTW they are very well priced imo, way cheaper than buying the 4 seperate sets that I would need!

    February 10th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

  28. Tracy says:

    Just to throw in another perspective. My husband and I are caucasian and our daughter is Chinese. Initially I was only looking for an Asian child but after perusing the internet and reading other blogs I will buy people of all different skin colors and facial features. It will be interesting to observe how she puts families together without our interpreting her experience for her.

    April 4th, 2009 at 3:36 pm

  29. Elizabeth says:

    Take a look at it from a business standpoint – anywhere you go individual items cost more then items purchased in bulk. One can of soda at the store costs more (per soda) than a 6-pack or a 24-pack. The idea is that businesses want you to buy MORE. They want everyone to buy more regardless of race. I don’t think race has anything to do with it. I think it is completely reasonable for businesses to offer a discount when you buy a volume pack of something, be it dolls or soda or q-tips. I’m sure that families with two daughters instead of a daughter and a son find themselves in the same dilemma as you – and that is a very common family scenario that crosses all kinds of boundaries including racial. I don’t think it is too out of line to say that gender identity is just as important to children as racial identity. So I think this is really just an issue with you being disappointed that the bulk packs offered didn’t suit your particular needs. While I would be disappointed also in your situation, certainly I wouldn’t hold it against the company or toy store for offering a discount for a prepackaged bulk purchase. It is a common business practice across all product areas.

    November 22nd, 2009 at 10:43 am

  30. DIonne says:

    I Just bought one of each kind of family. After all everyone race is in my family. I simply did it thinking it would be funny to see her play us as charaters. Who cares about race or the money. It is all in the way you raise your child. The world is made up of everyone….and her dollhouse represents that.

    September 26th, 2011 at 12:32 pm