In The Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of "Fantasia," Mickey Mouse is bored with lugging buckets of water to the Sorcerer's cavern. So he plays with magic, conjuring a tribe of brooms to life to help with his chore. But he ends up learning a near-painful lesson about messing with the natural order of things.
In real life, The Children's Place Retail Stores Inc., the new owner of the Disney Store retail chain, is trying to channel the magic of the venerable brand and its heritage to renew the old Disney Store experience. The company has opened 18 stores and remodeled 32 since taking over the chain in 2004, searching for a renewed identity for the beloved brand's retail experience. The question is: How much do you want to play with so familiar a brand before you alienate its devoted fans and shoppers?
"We're trying to have fun and get people excited about the product and the stores again," says Chele Mckee, senior director of visual merchandising for Disney Store, the Glendale, Calif.-based division of The Children's Place.
Back in the 80s, when The Walt Disney Co. (Burbank, Calif.) began launching a fleet of "retail-tainment" spaces, it took theming to the max with lots of animation, theatrics, characters and fun. The empire grew to more than 1000 off-park stores, based mainly in malls, with some freestanding locations in tourist cities like New York, Las Vegas and Chicago. But the theme-park giant eventually found out that shoppers farther removed from the center of the Disney world are less inclined to buy Goofy trinkets and Tinker Bell souvenirs. And Disney began closing the chain almost as quickly as it had grown it.
When The Children's Place, a specialty children's apparel and accessories retailer in Secaucus, N.J., purchased the more than 300 remaining Disney Stores in North America, it committed $100 million to upgrade and expand them.
The Children's Place knew it had a recognizable brand, but found it also had a fleet of stores with various design formats.
"Fifteen years ago, Disney Stores' themed retail environments were cutting edge," says Michael Dubiel, The Children's Place senior director of store design. "But the stores had aged. We needed a more fresh and modern look."
So it partnered with design firm Kiku Obata and Co. (St. Louis) to create a new Disney prototype for the 21st Century. "We wanted to bring back the magic and build on everyone's positive memories of Disney," says firm president Obata.
They conducted research into shoppers' memories with Disney, finding that the top three iconic images were: Mickey as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Tinker Bell and Cinderella's castle. It then used those icons as a launching point, creating a retail-focused concept, dubbed - what else - "The Mickey."
The store, which debuted in Trumbull, Conn., in July 2005, introduced the Mickey ear shape as iconography at the storefront and the cashwrap. And gigantic versions of Mickey's hands and feet were transformed into fixtures for impulse buys and last-minute gifts. "Everyone can relate to the Mickey silhouette," says Dubiel. "It's a modern approach to a timeless classic."
Disney characters were placed in only a few strategic locations, while at the center an 11-foot-high Sorcerer Mickey with a sparkling fiberoptic ceiling overhead created a light-show spectacular. Periwinkle-colored walls and modern white fixturing complemented the new setting. "We wanted it to be much more fashion-oriented and to extend the market to include everyone who grew up on Disney," says Obata.
But shopper feedback showed customers missed all of that fairy tale magic and retail enchantment they'd come to associate with Disney Stores. The company discovered that the thematic characters were necessary to pull off the iconic elements.
Unlike some venerable brands that rest on their laurels, The Children's Place decided to continue evolving the Disney Store concept, taking the original Obata concept and adding another layer of magic to the environment to find a happy medium between thematic superstore and modern retail look and feel. What would appeal to 4-year-old princesses and their mothers, both of whom once dreamed of pixie dust and princes?
That "magic makeover" included adding mannequins, risers and other visual elements into future stores to better display the company's expanding line of merchandise. A mural package, introduced to the walls, uses thematic skies to indicate each department, such as a blustery summer sky in Pooh's 100 Acre Woods plush department and Buzz Lightyear flying around in the boys' department. The fitting room, which was transformed into a castle using dimensional theming in the Trumbull store, will be further played up in future stores with a more intensive mural treatment. And Sorcerer Mickey is also now surrounded by images of those pesky water buckets.
"The guest expects Disney magic," says Mckee. "So we've added details and icons into the environment to ensure a magical store experience for kids of all ages."
The evolved design was introduced at the Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, Calif., in November 2005. The Children's Place plans to roll the look out to additional stores this year. But, it adds, the concept is still evolving, with plans calling for some fixture modifications and material changes at the entryway. "It's the evolution of a prototype," says Dubiel.
In "Fantasia," Mickey's fate is in danger until the real Sorcerer returns and waves his magic wand to fix the mess Mickey has made. In real life, The Children's Place wants to be the sorcerer who gives new life to Disney Stores. Only time and a little retail magic will tell.
Mannequins and other visual elements house the brand's expanding line of merchandise.
Client: Disney Stores, Glendale, Calif.
Chele Mckee, senior director, visual merchandising, Disney Stores
Tim Anderson, construction, purchasing and facilities, The Children's Place
Michael Dubiel, senior director, store design, The Children's Place
Design: Kiku Obata & Co., St. Louis
Architect: MSA, San Francisco
Outside Design Consultant: Steve Adams, Los Angeles (character artist/illustrator)
Ceilings: Dashco, East Rutherford, N.J.
Fixtures: RMI, Benselam, Pa.
Flooring: ASI, New York
Lighting: Regency Lighting, Van Nuys, Calif.
Mannequins/Forms: Fusion Mannequins, Denver
Props and Decoratives/Theming: Tivioli Too, St. Paul, Minn.
Vogue, City Of Industry, Calif.
Signage/Graphics: JGA, Glendale, Calif.
Access Signs, Longueil, Que.
Wallcoverings/Materials: Mural Makers, Burbank, Calif.
Photography: Michael Miller, Los Angeles (Arcadia, Calif. store)
Kiku Obata & Co. JGA