The New Disney Stores #1: My Chat with President Jim Fielding

| August 14, 2010

I’m going to approach this blog a little differently today.  Bear with me a bit, because I’m going to take you on a journey – and it may be a long one.  In fact - this is part 1 of a 3 part series!

If you miss your Disney Store because it closed or are excited about seeing your local store remodel to the new Disney Store concept, this will be a learning experience.  I know you know a lot about the new Disney Stores from the blog I did on the Montebello one – but this was a different experience.  The man who taught me a lot more about it was Jim Fielding – the President of Disney Stores Worldwide.  I was thrilled to be able to sit down with him for close to an hour and talk about the Disney Stores!  If you follow along, you’ll be will be rewarded with not only audio of a personal store tour from Jim, but my second installment, which includes a great talk with Jon Endicott, Global Director of Design for the Disney Stores. The third (and final installment) includes an interview with Hannah Montana stars (Jason Earles and Moises Arias), and a one-on-one with RidemakerZ ZEO (CEO), Larry Andreini.  Combine that with some fabulous video of all of the above and you’ll see why this was such a great experience!

Lunch with Jim Fielding, and North American VPs/General Managers Molly Adams and Paul Gainer, was the highlight of my visit out to Santa Monica.  It was a small group, so we sat down with our families and theirs and had a chance to talk about the stores.  For this installment, I’d like to share some of what we discussed with them, such as where the stores have been, what has inspired the changes, and where they are going.

For the audio version of my interview with Jim Fielding, click here.

First, it’s important to note a bit about Jim Fielding.  He’s had a long history with Disney.  He discussed growing his career from a postponed acceptance to law school, to his introduction to retail, and then management with GAP during its strongest years.  He then talked about joining The Disney Stores and working with the (now defunct) Disney Catalog and then back to marketing and working directly with product.  He was called in to help with the transition of moving the Disney Stores back to Disney ownership, and has been at the helm ever since!  In fact, if you follow the business side of the Disney Stores, you can really see his history and experience with the company in the changes that are coming to fruition.

One of the fascinating things that we talked about was what involved in bring a retail store to life.  Jim discussed a little bit of the back-story on what has worked and not worked over the last several years and why The Disney Stores left cities/malls.   And you know what, it really made sense.  The Disney Stores usually set up a 10 year lease and that, unfortunately, left some Disney Stores in dying retail environments.  You know – we’ve all seen them – the malls that no one goes to because they don’t have a decent variety of stores, or too many empty fronts.  This is brought about when the mall demographic changes – like the loss of a flagship store in a mall, or a popularity/desirability shift.  We saw this a few years back in the closing of mid-scale department stores, like Mervyn’s, and also in the acquisition of the May Company by the retail giant, Macy’s.  They now had two anchor/flagship stores in a mall and were closing one.  The spaces are too big for a normal retailer to fit into, but too small for a Target or other larger retailer to enter.  Their departure creates a “trickle-down” effect and other smaller retailers start feeling it in their cash register.  The Disney Store was no exception to this.  Sometimes Magic and Pixie Dust just can’t save it.  Also the older stores – with their animated character displays, specialty fixtures, and custom carpeting were getting more and more expensive to maintain and repair.   There were also cities that had been “over-expanded”.  That means that there were too many Disney Stores to support the demand for the product.  The Disney Store was becoming too commonplace - just not the special experience that people once had.  They were becoming blasé and that showed at the register.

He also discussed their thought process in re-entering markets that they have pulled away from and the importance of choosing the right malls.   You have to not only look at the mall’s health now, but you need to have some kind of measure to predict their health for the future.  Jim commented that real estate is chosen based on the balance of “tourism” appeal, as well as local community need.  Sometimes they hold off opening a location until they have done their research on the malls in the area.  Even in less tourist-driven cities, everyone in that city can name a mall that people tend to take their “out-of-town guests” to.  That type of location provides the ideal setting of a Disney Store.

The Santa Monica Place mall was a great example of this.  The Disney Store closed its Promenade location a while ago, leaving only the Westside Pavilion store to service the entire west side of Los Angeles.  Santa Monica certainly had the tourist traffic, as well as the community traffic to support a store in that location, but the area was dying slowly for retail – people just weren’t flocking to it.  The mall at the end of the Promenade was just that – a tired mall, where stores were closing.   In fact, the Disney Store had actually closed its Promenade store, as well.  Then, a developer chose to close and renovate the entire structure.  They literally “took the roof off”.  Really.  See….

The central court of Santa Monica Place

This is so amazingly different from when we used to shop here.   It was so claustrophobic and dingy – stuck in an 80′s design, if you will.   The developer brought in Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdales to anchor the mall and were looking for higher end and specialty stores to fill the first two floors, with nothing but higher end eateries on the top level – not just a traditional food court!  The Santa Monica Place development would now be worthy of the tourist dollar – and they could come, shop, eat in a beautiful, fresh new environment.  The Disney Store was aware of this development and realized that it would be mutually beneficial to get in on the ground floor of this – and they did!  (Well, actually, it’s on the second floor, but that isn’t a good metaphor, now, is it?)

The space they ended up with is a prime location – right in the heart of the central atrium, by the escalators to the eatery level!   It’s easy to find and next to the main traffic path.  Of course all stores want these prime locations, but it’s especially important for retailers like The Disney Store.  Heavy traffic past the store means more traffic into the store.  Jim and Molly spoke of how opening new stores or remodeling older stores can often be delayed for just the right space.   It’s easiest (and cheapest for Disney) to simply find a great storefront in a mall, renovate it, and then move in.   Fewer days of lost revenue!  However, that perfect spot may be occupied with someone who isn’t leaving quickly, delaying plans for another year or two – maybe even more!  If you like where you are located, then and need to renovate, then that means setting up shop in a temporary location – so you can still make money, renovate, and then move back.  Additional costs, but hey – it has to happen.  You still have to wait for the right spot to open for the move – once again delaying a project.   In all of this, communication with the community is the key to a successful store transition!

In fact, communication with the community is so important that you can even see how they designed the new Digital Communications Screen in the window to the right of the entrance.  This ”signboard” keeps guests (and people who aren’t necessarily planning on being guests) informed of upcoming events and happenings that are going on at the store.  This is all part of the goal to bring the community into the store as an activity destination – and it’s a genius from a retail business perspective!  Just think - family walks by and sees that they are hosting a FREE build your own Perry the Platypus In-Action Figure at 11 am on Saturday (or better yet – the kids who can read see it) and guess who will be coming by the store that morning?  Yep.  Genius – and paperless.  Eco-friendly!

Santa Monica Place was designed to be that way, too.  Jim said there were a lot of the “green” building standards that went into the design of these new stores, especially in this location.  These things include energy saving lighting designs, efficient electrical, heating, and cooling systems, and using “green” building and fixture materials.  As time goes on, other mall construction will be adopting those same policies.  Just wait.   The new stores are definitely showing more Enviromentality than simply selling the “Track My T” Organic shirts.  They are making it a commitment and hoping to raise awareness in the communities they reside in.  It’s unfortunate, that the casual shopper might never completely know that, unless they are out there reading this.   That’s okay.  We all know.

They had some interesting challenges with the retail space they chose for Santa Monica Place, too.  It has a split elevation – meaning it had to be accessible with both ramps and stairs.  That’s okay, because the new concept can fully handle that challenge by using the Pixie Dust Trail as the ramping pathway - it’s the perfect solution, since that rambling path could follow the layout of any store design.   That Trail starts at the front door, winds you back and forth throughout the store – allowing you to view all of the “character neighborhoods”, and then drops you off in the Disney Store Theater at the end – another genius design element.   You can see that in this photo, shot standing at the elevated back of the store and looking back toward the entrance.  It actually gives you a really nice visual overview!

Jim went on to describe how the trail and the Theater were key to really bringing folks in and then giving them a community place to end up in, since the Theater can be used for all sorts of guest activities.  We’re all familiar with the big video walls and screens in the stores throughout their history, but this is different.  Jim described how the Disney Store Theater now has computerized video screens that both the guests and the Cast Members can interact with and customize throughout the business day for things like Story Time and Karaoke.  It can host special promotional material, like the exclusive clip from the new Tinkerbell movie that is shown in the photo, or it can do special hands-on activities – like that Perry the Platypus event that was held.  They can even use it to celebrate events or make that infamous “Disney Magic” for the guests.  The possibilities are endless!

Even though the Disney Store is focusing more about partnership with the community than simply selling a product these days, they sure are working to expand an improve their product line and presentation.  That’s seen in the welcome additions of Disney Couture, Pook-a-Loos, Vinylmation, organic cotton Track my T’s (which have a wicked-cool website), RIDEMAKERZ CARS chassis/accessories, Toy Story 3 Legos, and the coming addition of Marvel products!   Jim talked about how The Disney Store is working to bring the Disney intellectual property back to the stores in unique and creative ways and you can really see that in the new offerings.

I know what you are thinking – that you can get some of those products in the park.  Well, yes, but at the same time, no.  Sure you can find Vinylmation, Pook-a-Loos, and Couture in the Disney Theme Parks merchandise catalog, but did you know the Disney Store will be coming out with its own exclusive line of Vinylmations?  They are also (currently) the only ones to sell the CARS chassis for the RIDEMAKERZ internal components and new styles will be coming in the future with the release of CARS II .  Bringing those products into the Disney Store brings them to a whole host of folks that don’t get out to the parks as often as they would like!   Legos, are well, Legos, but that’s neither here nor there.  The other big change and challenge will be the incorporation of Marvel products into the stores – the New York store will be the first to get a Marvel neighborhood!

Still, the rest of the products sold at The Disney Store are made exclusively for them- from plush, to costumes, to pencil sets.  You can tell, because the materials and design used are different than those at the Theme Parks.  Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes not.  The simple graphic t-shirts manufactured for the stores are from organic cotton, a big step for any retailer.   I’ve always found the costumes from the Disney Store much better than the ones at the parks – and the new Rapunzel costume, from Tangled, is a great example!   I have yet to purchase one of the princess or fairy ones for my girls in the parks - I’d rather wait and see what creative option the Disney Store has to offer – after all, the styles change every season!

Jim explained that the store provides so much more interaction with the products, through the use of the Magic Mirrors and the RIDEMAKERZ assembly stations that have been installed in the stores.  They are places where families can actually touch and experience things together, not just look at a box on the shelf.  They have also taken into consideration that guests don’t have the ability to spend a lot of time in the store, such as those shopping for last minute birthday parties.  The Pixie Dust trail takes you straight to the latest products (those that are in demand, such as Toy Story 3, Phineas and Ferb, and Fairies), so you can get what you need and go on with your day.

So now that they have this successful concept that they have brought to reality, where is the Disney Store headed from here?   Jim stated the plan is to do 50-60 stores a year, for the next 5-6 years, until the entire company has the Imagination Park design.  This means that, with a little patience, your store will have these same features. While the Disney Store won’t be focusing on expanding the number of stores in their fleet, they will be re-evaluating some of the markets that they pulled out of  in past years.  Jim issued the caution that there are no guarantees, but the issue is being considered.   As I mentioned above, this will be no easy task and will require a bit of patience from guests, who are eager to see a change.

If you want to learn more about the design concepts involved with the new Disney Store, stay tuned for Part 2: Meet Jon Endicott – Director of Global Design and Construction!   After that, we’ll meet the male stars of Hannah Montana- Moises Arias and Jason Earles, as well as RIDEMAKERZ ZEO, Larry Andreini, in Part 3: Stars Welcome Disney to Santa Monica!

Author’s note: Santa Monica is an easy 1 hour drive from the Disneyland Resort, via Interstate 5 to Interstate 10, and would make a welcome break from the parks for any Disneyland vacation, without having to change resorts.

Photos by N. Johnson and S. Mogle


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Category: Disneyland, News

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Disneyland Podcaster for the DIS Unplugged
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