Magic kingdom

Creating wonder and amazement instore is no child’s play, as Disney found out. It takes hard work and a lot of imagination.

t’s an empire built on children’s imaginations and wholesome cartoon characters, but what does one of the world’s most recognised brands do when its sales begin to slide?
Take back its retail licenses and create a new concept designed to enchant and bewitch a new generation of littlies, of course.

In just two years the Disney Company has managed to resurrect its dwindling retail sales, creating a new ‘imagination park’ retail concept based around technology and its most loved characters.
Disney opened its first retail store in 1987, and there are now 240 Disney stores across North America, Europe and Japan, which until 2008 were run under license.

Currently, there are 12 stores in North America, and seven in Europe operating in the new imagination park format, with the entire store network to be converted to the concept within six years.

The first imagination park store was opened in June 2010 in southern California, and in 2011 20 will open across the three continents.

Oracle took Inside Retailing on an exclusive tour of Disney’s flagship store in New York’s Times Square, which has been trading since November.

Spanning 10,200sqft, the two level store fits in well with its glittering surroundings, its huge digital signage spanning the vast front of the store, showcasing the latest Disney movies.
Inside, the ground floor is unique to the Times Square store, stocking New York exclusive merchandise, its entire plush toy range, and the most popular pieces from the Disney retail range, targeting the ever-present tourist population.
Open from 9am until midnight seven says a week, around 8000 people walk past the door of Disney’s Times Square store every hour, so the ground floor is laid out to direct traffic and handle large customer throughput.

But it’s the second level where the real magic lies.


Steve Finney, senior VP of Disney’s global operations and business development, told the Oracle Retail Exchange, that if Disney intended to succeed in retail, it had to elevate the brand and become a brand experience.

“We really resonated on one vision statement,” said Finney.  “We wanted to be the best 30 minutes of a child’s day – and that statement has really been the top priority and the filter the company has used – not only in store design, but in product story telling,” he said.

“It’s about the child’s experience once they are in the store, and if the child is having a good experience, typically, the family is having a good experience in the store.”
The previous stores under license were a less than magical environment according to Finney, and the new vision statement led to the closure and relocation of Disney’s iconic, 16,000sqft  Fifth Avenue, New York store, to the Times Square site.

And the new concept has proved successful. In the eight months of the new concept’s trade, footfall has increased 20 per cent and margins are up 25 per cent. The new Times Square store, despite its smaller size, does more volume than the former Fifth Avenue store.

“If you went into a Disney store five years ago, we were a little more of a category merchant,” said Finney.

“We would have all of our apparel together, graphic tees, sleepwear and toys. What we have now is story telling – all of the characters brought to life.

“When you walk into an imagination park Disney store, all the characters are merchandised together, so you will see all a Little Mermaid sleep gown next to a doll, next to a stuffed animal.

“This creates merchandising challenges, but it also allows us to create that store for the child in one location.

“We can create statements about what is important for the company. For example when the movie Tangled came out in theatres, we put Rapunzel all together in one story and used the content on our video screen out the front.”

In the Times Square store, all of the child related experiences are on the second floor.

“It’s a family experience. Everything is at the child’s level and focused on their sight lines and what they are experiencing.”
At present, around two in three people who enter the store venture up to the second level, and on weekdays, this grows to 80 per cent of customers, demonstrating that local residents understand where the experiences are and that they are taking their children upstairs.

So what’s so special about the second floor?


Dominating the 6000sqft floorspace is a huge castle, housing all of the Disney Princesses merchandise. The highlight of this section though, is a special interactive mirror.

After choosing the wand of their favourite Disney Princess, children wave the wand over the magic mirror, which recognises an inbuilt sensor and plays one of eight scenes featuring that character.

The wands, which use RFID technology, sell at a rate 12 times higher in the new stores as a result of the instore experience created – despite the fact that the wand does not work outside of the store environment.

The next focal area instore is the theatre, which in all locations stretches 196sqft and is used for events and to create an area for the family where children can interact with the movie content of the Disney Company.

“We realised it was our filter of the best 30 minutes of a child’s day, and we needed to create a space for that,” Finney said of the theatre.

Boys are also catered for, with sections housing products from Disney’s newest edition, the Marvel Comics business, as well as Toy Story and Cars.

Yet another interactive experience can be had at the Cars workstation, which allows its young customers to build and customise their own car using characters from the movie franchise.
Children can choose everything from chassis, tyres, treads and street glow, even adding a remote control if they wish (and mum and dad can afford it!).

All car parts are interchangeable and can be snapped on and off, magnetised or affixed using the special child-friendly drills instore or the take-home key.


The imagination park format utilises the best in retail technology. From Oracle’s latest point of sale system and mobile POS, to RFID and digital signage.

Much of the store, including the theatre, is controlled by an iPod touch.

“We’ve really taken that shopkeeper mentality where the store manager is in control of the day’s events,” said Finney.
“So if they are in a mall and they know a pre-school mum is in store from 10am to noon, they can create events and theatre for that demographic.

“In all of our stores we have a digital marketing screen, and the manager controls the schedule.

“At 11am when we have more children in the store, we can communicate that we’re going to have story time with Cinderella, and at 3pm when the tweens are in the mall, we may want to have an interaction with a Hannah Montana learn to dance or something more Disney Channel related.”

The Times Square store is also paper free. There are no banners in windows, instead we use digital signage and stage sets such as wooden trees which can be used to project characters and movie franchises onto.
In 2009, a 12 store pilot of new Oracle point of sale technology saw a 2.5 per cent improvement in store put-though. The system has now been rolled out to all 240 stores around the world as a result.

Another addition to the new stores was mobile POS.

“The benefit of mobile POS is that we can suspend a transaction, so if a customer is in line, we can scan their product or take them aside, print out their receipt and they’re on their way.”

Shoppers can have their purchases scanned, swipe their credit card, and have a receipt printed, all from a mobile system integrated into the server and back of office.

“It’s been really helpful – we also have a new bagging station fixture that pops into any column that we can put in different sections of the store to separate the mobile experience from the line queue at POS.

“We’ve seen some stores on peak days where 18 per cent to 20 per cent of business was done in mobile, which is phenomenal, and from a volume stand point almost acts as a full POS station.”

Mobile POS will be rolled out to all stores by mid-year.

There are also new technologies in the works for the stores.

“We’ve got some other things in development,” said Finney. “We’ve got 10 year leases that we sign knowing that the experiences are going to need updating, so there are other things we can use down the line to freshen them up.

“We’ve been experimenting with how to make buying a stuffed animal a magical experience, and other ways we can use RFID or other kinds of technology to create rituals and experiences where the child is interacting with their favourite characters.”

This feature first appeared in Inside Retailing Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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