The Comeback of a Classic Toy Store with In-Store Experiences

Jumbo plush giraffes stand guard as a ruby red, mini Mercedes Benz toy convertible twinkles with 44,000 shimmering Swarovski crystals. Little feet tap over the keys of a giant piano, lighting them up one by one in front of the giant window overlooking a buzzing courtyard below. This is FAO Schwarz, back with a new flagship store in the heart of New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza. The grand opening was in November, three years after the famous toy store shut down its massive Fifth Avenue location. The new store spans three floors, and is bursting with 12-foot toy soldiers, a 27-foot rocket ship, and oversized teddy bears galore.

FAO Schwarz made its comeback with a vision to act as a destination for families to make memories, rather than just a place to exchange money for toys. “FAO was always about having the experience. It was always more than just buying a toy,” says David Niggli, chief merchandising officer of FAO Schwarz. “What we found in relaunching the brand was that it is such an emotional brand for people. This is where they grew up. There are great toys from all over the world; there are great demonstrators; there are characters throughout. It’s the full FAO experience, just in a great new home with lots of new things.”

Visitors will recognize the familiar icons of the store, with modern twists to keep people on their toes. “There are a lot of those same things, like the clock tower is back but bigger and better than ever. Our most popular plush toys are Patrick and Penelope, our big plush dogs. People are so glad to see them back,” Niggli says. “Of course we have the dance-on piano, but now we have one that mirrors on the ceiling so the keys light up as you dance on the floor. We’ve got great new icons like a giant rocket ship from Build-A-Bear workshop.”

There are plenty of in-store features that create an experience for customers while they shop, in addition to new concepts that make first-time visits exciting. These include the Alex Spa bath and hair spa, where kids can get their hair and nails done using Alex Spa products; the Melissa & Doug FAO Mart, a toy grocery store where kids can shop for play food using mini grocery carts (all from Melissa & Doug); and Discovery #MindBlown, a lab area where kids can watch staffers perform experiments using Discovery-branded chemistry sets.

“Shoppers are invited to work alongside trained mechanics at FAO Raceway, where they can build R/C cars piece-by-piece by picking out their individualized body style, color, wheels, and designs,” says David Conn, CEO of ThreeSixty Brands, the group that now owns FAO Schwarz. “Also new to the store is the FAO Schwarz Baby Doll Adoption Experience where nurses and doctors walk children through the adoption process and teach them how to properly love and care for their baby dolls. Once a prospective parent adoption form is completed, kids can select the doll of their choosing. The baby dolls are then taken for a ‘checkup’ before they are sent home with their very own FAO certificate of adoption.”

There’s also an entire section of the store dedicated to one of kids’ favorite things—candy. FAO Schweetz, operated by specialty candy retailer IT’SUGAR, returns with more than 2,150 square feet featuring life-sized versions of classic toys serving as bulk candy containers. A gigantic toy train holds bins full of gummy worms and jelly rings next to a spaceship containing capsules of Jolly Ranchers and Tootsie Pops.

In addition to selling products from well-known brands, such as Spin Master, Hasbro, and Mattel, there are more than 200 FAO Schwarz-branded toys in the store, including an FAO Schwarz Giant Floor Piano Dance Mat, a 75-Piece Motorized Train Set with Sound, and an R/C Retro Bumper Car Set. There’s FAO Schweetz-branded candy as well, including giant gummy bears and unicorns and make-your-own gummy worm kits.

The FAO Schwarz flagship now has its first holiday season under its belt after seeing a rush of holiday shoppers on their way to and from the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and ice skating rink, conveniently located right outside the shop. Conn says the best-selling products over the holidays “were those that tied into the in-store experiences we offered. FAO Baby Doll Adoption, FAO Make Your Own R/C, the Alex Spa hair and nail salon, and Build-A-Bear all were very popular this holiday. In addition, FAO Schwarz toys and holiday decor was our top-selling brand, with plush especially strong along with highly demonstrable items that all make up the magic of FAO.”

FAO Schwarz recognizes that sales are important online, too, especially for people who can’t make it to the NYC location or for busy shoppers who don’t have the time to visit the shop. The store offers a selection of products online at faoschwarz.com. “Our online sales beat our expectations with FAO-branded items and specialty brands, such as Steiff and Bunnies By The Bay, all being very popular,” Conn says, regarding holiday sales.

ThreeSixty Group plans to expand the brand with more locations worldwide, including shops-within-shops and a flagship in China. “We will continue to roll out FAO Schwarz shop-in-shops in Canada with Hudson Bay, in Europe with Selfridges and El Corte Inglés, and in Australia with Meyer, with more announcements coming soon,” says Jan-Eric Kloth, chief operating officer at ThreeSixty Group. “We opened our first airport store at LaGuardia Airport and are opening additional locations in conjunction with Hudson News.”

ThreeSixty also announced a partnership with Kidsland, a Chinese toy distributor and retailer with almost 300 stores. They will open a 27,000-square-foot FAO Schwarz flagship at China World Mall in Beijing this April. The companies also plan to open a second location in Shanghai in 2020, followed by additional stores set to open across China over the next five years, according to Kloth.

As the brand expands its wonderland, a new generation of kids from New York to China can grow up with the giant plush and glittering cars of FAO Schwarz.

Photos: Richard Cadan