What Took Disney So Long to Bring Experience to Retail Space?

Like Mattel's American Girl Franchise, the Mouse House Needs to Push Its Brand, not Only Merchandise

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There might be a raging recession on Madison Avenue, but one block away on Fifth, you would never have known it a few weeks ago. That's when I found myself trying to maneuver the packed American Girl store where I had -- somewhat cluelessly -- offered to take my 9-year-old niece for her birthday.

On this Saturday afternoon, the place was teeming with tweens scooping up overpriced doll clothes, toys and accessories as fast as they could get them into oversize red shopping bags. At the onsite cafe, lunch, tea and dinner were solidly booked more than a week in advance, to the disappointment of poor Kelsie, who still happily doled out every dime of her $160 in birthday money onsite. There were long lines for performances, doll "hair salon" appointments and meals; checkout queues curled amusement-park-like around retractable ropes.

But what really got my attention was the white stretch limousine -- the sort normally associated with bridal parties -- that disgorged a giggling gaggle of young ladies who descended in full party mode, ready to experience the brand, live for a short time in the fantasy that American Girl has to offer, and, hopefully for Mattel, take a bit of it home with them.

It got me wondering why it's taken Walt Disney Co. so long to come up with the notion to revamp its stores to make them an interactive experience with features such as karaoke contests, mirrors that "talk" to kids as they walk by and film clips that children choose themselves. Maybe it's the cost that's been holding it back: The New York Times says it'll cost some $1 million per store -- but it surely has to be money well spent.

Let me be clear: I certainly wouldn't go around beating up on Tinkerbell, but I've never understood the whole cult of Disney with adults going around sporting mouse ears or Donald Duck stadium jackets. (Hold the hate mail, Daisy!) But I do understand the essence of the Disney brand, and it isn't princess tiaras or "Pirates of the Caribbean" masks -- it's imagination, pure and simple.

And the more Disney can bring that gee-whiz quality of wonderment to the retail environment, the more it takes ownership of the experience, the more foot traffic it will bring and the more it is likely to sell product. It's also an investment in the future of the brand, as consumers who can't afford to travel to Anaheim or Orlando in these stressed economic times can at least get to experience it on Fifth Avenue or the local mall.

Moreover, an interactive Disney store could be a sorely needed traffic driver for local malls, which are seeing record numbers of store closings and fewer shoppers.

Disney's existing stores seem like a squandered opportunity to me. They are selling merchandise that is an outgrowth of the brand rather than selling the brand -- and some associated merchandise along the way. While there are some entertainment aspects to the stores, there is so much more it can do to exploit its uniquely magical position. All it takes is a little Imagineering -- and a few million bucks worth of fairy dust.

Of course, the interactive retail experience is at its most powerful when it is associated with powerful brands. This was brought home to me on the return trip from American Girl with my niece as we stopped in to the Toys 'R' Us store in Times Square. There, she marveled at the fearsome, stories-high animated dinosaur -- on her way past the "Jurasssic Park" toys it was touting to get to Disney's Hannah Montana merchandise.

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