FAO Schwarz, launched in the mid-19th century in Baltimore by a German immigrant (Frederick August Otto Schwarz) has had several owners, spanning two continents, and stores all over the globe. But for nearly 150 years, since Schwarz opened a "Schwarz Toy Bazaar" in lower Manhattan, the toy dealer's flagship store has been recognized the world over as a New York City institution.
That's true even though the retailer has left town more than once, closing for a few months during a bankruptcy proceeding in 2004, and again in 2015 when owner Toys R Us shuttered the store, then in the city's sleek General Motors Building.
When ThreeSixty Group bought the brand a year later, the brand management company pledged a merchandising strategy drawing on the over-the-top store experience tourists once flocked to Fifth Avenue to see. Now, months after the collapse of Toys R Us, the company has re-opened FAO Schwarz's doors to the tourists and denizens of New York.
On a snowy day last week after a storm that snarled commutes and blanketed the retailer's new Rockefeller Center home — 10 blocks from its former, larger location — the city welcomed the retailer back after its three-year absence. While smaller, the store has 2.5 levels and more than 20,000 square feet, according to a company press release.
Back are the human toy soldiers, this time with uniforms designed by model Gigi Hadid. Back is the iconic dance-on piano, now featuring professional "piano dancers" who put on a show periodically and musicians who help customers dance out a song.
Some things are new, like a 27-foot tall rocket ship sponsored by Build-A-Bear Workshop and helmed by teddy-bear astronauts, trained mechanics at the "FAO Raceway," where remote-control cars can be custom built, and a "Baby Doll Adoption Experience," where "nurses and doctors" talk to children about caring for their dolls. The candy concession, run in partnership with trendy candy retailer IT'SUGAR, spans more than 2,150 square feet in candy installations and includes FAO Schwarz-branded gummy candy and chocolates.
The large staff is trained to be helpful not just for sales and checkout, but also to support what the company in its release calls "retail-tainment."
"It's about the theater — we rented a theater in New York and we had a casting call," FAO Schwarz Chief Merchandising Officer David Niggli told Retail Dive in an interview about staffing the location. "It is like going to a living theater."
The company expects that its Rockefeller Plaza location will attract customers all year long, and Niggli said the retailer will be launching products with partners in the toy and entertainment industries. In partnership with Chinese toy retail company Kidsland, the company has plans for flagship locations in Beijing and Shanghai, plus 30 smaller FAO Schwarz specialty stores and shop-in-shops in 200 department stores across China over the next five years. The brand has also inked a deal with Hudson Group, which runs several airport stores in North America, and is running holiday pop-ups at European department stores, Canada's Hudson's Bay Co. and several American department stores.
"We firmly believe that if you offer a fully engaging experience that is unique, that they will buy," Niggli told Retail Dive on the phone after the store opened to long lines. "There's a place for this, for bringing back all the things that were loved, for this kind of flagship store, the staffing and the level of employee engagement for the consumer. When you deliver that, they line up all the way down the block every day of the week."
While other retailers are working hard to pick up the significant market share left behind by Toys R Us, FAO Schwarz has retained an advantage throughout the years because it's always pulled people in with thoughtful and intentional enchantment, according to Niggli. The timing of the opening was just right — a week before Thanksgiving and the holiday season, in an era when the customer experience is about wonderment, he also said.
"We've always been about experience," he said. "Yeah we have an e-commerce site, but if you do go to a store it has to be experiential. Gigi Hadid said she designed the new soldier costumes because she was so in love with the brand, because she grew up with it. In relaunching the brand I think one of the things that has struck us all is how emotional it is to so many people at so many ages. You went to FAO Schwarz with your grandparents or you got a gift from there when your parents were on a business trip."
"New York isn't New York without FAO Schwarz."