Wonderland

FAO Schwarz is back in Manhattan, three years after it closed its Fifth Avenue landmark, promoting a “return to wonder”
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Posted March 4, 2019

When Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia tripped the piano keys fantastic in the 1988 movie, “Big,” the FAO Schwarz store on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street was still the heart and soul of niche children’s stores for the Upper East Side shopping crowd.

The Toys “R” Us megastores and mass merchandisers like Walmart and Target had crowded many smaller, independent toy retailers out of business, but FAO Schwarz seemed practically untouchable.

Until it wasn’t. In the first nine years of the 21st century, the company’s burgeoning store empire went from 40 locations back to just one Manhattan flagship, and that one closed in 2015.

But the extraordinary roundelay of bankruptcies and new owners and investors from 1985 to 2016 (including a California-based retailer, a Dutch retailer and Toys “R” Us itself) culminated with ThreeSixty Group Inc. (Irvine, Calif.) acquiring FAO Schwarz in October 2016. ThreeSixty makes and distributes branded consumer products to retailers, so it knows all aspects of the game.

“We are investing heavily in this brand and believe there is a tremendous opportunity to build upon the heritage experience and nostalgia of FAO Schwarz,” said Kirk McLean, a ThreeSixty Group co-founder, in a press statement at the time of acquisition.

One of the first decisions the new ownership made was to get the toy brand back into bricks and mortar.

“With the departure of big box retailers in Manhattan, there was suddenly a dearth of play experiences,” says Jay Highland, Chief Creative Officer at Chute Gerdeman (Columbus, Ohio). “ThreeSixty saw the opportunity to revive the brand, first through the product lens. And then they followed up with what they felt was the ideal location.”

The company introduced its new FAO-branded products during holiday 2017 in Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Barnes & Noble and Kohl’s. With that established, it felt ready to create an FAO flagship experience for the following holiday shopping period.

The “ideal location” it chose is in Rockefeller Center, at 49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza, right alongside the ice rink. It’s a magnet for tourism and local traffic, especially during Christmas, the toy industry's most important time of the year.

And to fortify the brand, the new store includes previous references, like the kitten-on-the-keys piano, the toy soldiers and the familiar clock tower. But this was not to be merely a gentle homage to FAO’s past.

“The FAO brand has a long history, but they wanted this store to be forward-looking, contemporary, [and] aimed at today’s kids,” says Highland.

So the brand’s new tagline for its relaunch is a combination of past, present and future – “Return to Wonder.”

“We wanted to focus on ‘what’s next,’” says ThreeSixty Brands CEO David Conn. “There may be a nostalgic connection with the parents but, in today’s world, children have such exposure to a variety of media and technology. They’re very savvy as to what is current.”

The merchandise and attractions ThreeSixty provides include partnerships with Build-A-Bear Workshop, Hape Music, Hasbro, Barbie/Mattel, Steiff and Swarovski, among many others.

The 19,000-square-foot space itself, the former NBC Experience Store, presented some challenges, says Bonnie Kyle, Director of Chute’s Architectural Design Studio. “We renovated the entire store, but we were challenged by low ceiling heights in some areas. To combat that, we played with a combination of purposeful ceiling heights throughout the space while using lighting and ceiling color to create drama and contrast, drawing shoppers to focal moments and guiding them through the space naturally.”

For altitude, the space has a second floor, and two staircases that the designers made a significant part of the shopping journey. One of them winds up, around and through the clock tower, now an interactive experience. (The original clock tower was a static element of the store exterior.)

The steps of the rocket ship staircase light up with color-changing LEDs as shoppers make their way to the piano on the second floor, where a mirrored ceiling displays the activity to the outside world.

“It’s a visual play of color and reflections,” says Chute COO Wendy Johnson, EVP Account Management. “The piano’s new design reflects the activity on the floor to the ceiling, all lit up so Rockefeller Center visitors can see the piano fun from the outside.”

It’s all a reflection of FAO Schwarz once again becoming part of the retail magic of Manhattan.