The new Disney Store at the Mall of America may share its kid clientele with nearby Legoland and Nickelodeon Universe. But the retailer shares its heart with an outlet just several feet away: the Apple store.
With its seamless marriage of technology and brand, Disney’s new concept stores have taken a page or two from Apple Inc.’s vaunted retail playbook. Which makes sense, since Apple’s founder/CEO, the late Steve Jobs, was the largest shareholder in the Walt Disney Co. and served on its board of directors.
"Steve provided us with inspiration and support," said James Fielding, the president of Disney Stores Worldwide who spent time in Minnesota working for Dayton Hudson. "He encouraged us to think big."
At 5,000 square feet, the Disney Store at the Mall of America, which opened in October, is actually smaller than its original space on the mall’s second floor. Disney officials say they wanted a more visible location, and the store’s proximity to Legoland and Nickelodeon Universe was a definite plus.
Disney officials say the old stores lacked excitement and energy, especially for a company that prides itself on creativity and wonder. The concept stores "should not just be another place to buy Disney stuff but rather a physical manifestation of what Disney creates," Fielding said.
The store, one of 50 such concept stores across the country, certainly tries to make every inch count. Upon entering, shoppers will immediately see the large displays of "Cars 2" and of Marvel Universe, a comic book franchise Disney recently acquired that includes Spider-Man, Hulk and Captain America.
To the left is the Princess Neighborhood, which groups together all of Disney’s princess characters such as Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Further into the store lies the Disney Store Theater, which hosts screenings of Disney movies and events like character drawing workshops and trivia competitions.
Of course, you can buy Disney products at any major retailer, including Target Corp. and Toys ‘R’ Us, but Disney is trying to add something extra by using the entire floor space to celebrate the brand, said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a consumer research firm in New York.
"The brand brings something to the toy," Passikoff said.
Not the other way around — kind of like an Apple store.
A concept store allows retailers to earn higher profit margins because they use experience, not price cuts, to lure customers, he said.
Disney’s reboot of its retail stores goes back to 2008. At the time, the global economy began to falter and Disney officials needed a way to "stimulate guest interest," Fielding said. "There’s not a Disney theme park in every state," he added.
The company decided to retake control of its stores, which it had leased out to Children’s Place in 2004, and dedicate a retail division within Disney Consumer Products. Jobs, who became Disney’s largest investor when Disney purchased Pixar Studios in 2006, urged the company to carefully develop the new stores. In other words, don’t rush.
In fiscal 2011, Disney spent about $115 million on retail — up from $97 million in 2010 and $46 million in 2009, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. By 2016, the company hopes all of its 360 stores will be concept stores.
The stores’ use of technology to promote the brand also bears Jobs’ fingerprints. For example, a shopper can wave a special RFID tag in front a "Magic Mirror" in the Princess Neighborhood and Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" or Ariel from "The Little Mermaid" suddenly appear. Through a few taps on an iPhone, store staff can summon an image of "Toy Story"’s Buzz Lightyear to fly around the store.
If lines get too long, store staff can check out customers on mobile devices. Some stores also carry multi-touch kiosks that allow shoppers to book Disney cruises and order merchandise with home shipping.