Willy Wonka, New York

Wonka’s first retail project is an immersive experience in imagination in Times Square
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Posted January 5, 2011
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When the Willy Wonka Candy Co. decided to create its first retail location, it knew the bar was sky high. This, after all, is not just the supermarket and drugstore brand of Nerds and Laffy Taffy, Gobstoppers and Kazoozles. It’s also the subject of an iconic children’s book and two beloved movies. This couldn’t be just any candy store.

So when Toys “R” Us Inc. (Wayne, N.J.) offered 1000 square feet on the ground floor of its Times Square flagship store to Wonka (Burbank, Calif.-based division of Nestlé S.A., Vevey, Switzerland), the candy maker knew it had the right space to make the immersive experience happen. Now it had to create that experience.

“I read the book once a month, for inspiration,” says Janet The Planet (yes, her legal name), chief innovator for Wonka, noting Times Square’s appeal to New York visitors and the store’s huge windows onto the busy sidewalk. The opportunity coincided with the company’s decision to change its marketing thrust, from a brand with silly-sounding candy sub-brand names aimed at tweens to one that plays off the many generations who’ve related to the Wonka name and to the fun, images and inspiration of the stories.

That meant, says Planet, bringing the magic of the book and the visual imagery of the two movies to three-dimensional life. “We didn’t look at the shop as a place to put shelving and merchandising racks,” she says. “We wanted to use the entire space – from the floor all the way up to the very high ceilings – to paint a canvas that would be immediately attractive, even to people outside the store looking through the windows.”

And so the experience starts on the sidewalk. The store’s variety of flashing, color-changing lights, moving elements and other contraptions, viewed through the store’s 45 linear feet of plate-glass windows onto Broadway, is meant to stop traffic and demand attention. A large flatscreen in one of the windows plays current Wonka commercials.

Everything is meant to be referential, from a four-foot-tall version of Willy Wonka’s well-known hat (which is also the brand’s logo) to contraptions and conveyors (like a whimsical chocolate injector in the window) to the swirling shapes and vibrant colors from both movies and the book’s illustrations. “People experience the story early in their lives and it stays with them, gets their imaginations going,” Planet says. “When we were doing consumer research as part of our planning, I can’t tell you how often I heard, ‘That story inspired me.’ ”

Dominating the experience inside is a 21-foot candy tree, full of Pixy Stix and Kazoozles, towering over the space beneath a giant illuminated Wonka sign that says “Feed Your Imagination.” On the floor, digitally printed vinyl graphics look like an “edible garden” full of budding candies sprouting from the ground. On the ceiling, Planet had the air ducts painted red and white candy swirling stripes.

“The objective was a density of experiences, with new worlds and new sensations around every corner,” Planet says.

The multi-sensory experience includes chocolate and red apple scents, wafted into the environment by ScentAir Technologies Inc. (Charlotte, N.C.), which matched its oil-based liquids to product samples.

“When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a story-teller,” says Planet, a one-time mechanical engineer and fashion designer. “I set out to create a magical world that could not be substituted anywhere else.”

Project Suppliers
Retailer: Willy Wonka Candy Co., Burbank, Calif.; Toys “R” Us, Wayne, N.J.; IT’SUGAR, Boca Raton, Fla. –
Janet T. Planet, innovation manager, Wonka Experience, Wonka, Jeff Rubin, chief gummy bear, IT’SUGAR, Suzanne Sallata, director of visual merchandising, Toys “R” Us flagship

Design Firm: RockTenn Merchandising Displays, Burbank, Calif. ¬– Craig Clarke, national creative director

Audio/Visual: House of Secret Weapons, Los Angeles

Lighting: Focus Lighting, New York

Fixtures, Props and decoratives, Signage/Graphics, Wallcoverings
and Materials: Creative Arts Unlimited Inc., Pinellas Park, Fla.

Photography: Jesse Harris, New York