A tour of the FAO Schwarz flagship store in NYC should be mandatory for everyone who wants to understand the relevance of really good retail.
When last we left FAO, we left it for dead. Every single one of its stores was closed, and it was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Seems like yesterday but that was five years ago. FAO had made the fatal mistake of attempting to compete with Wal-Mart and Toys R US on price and, worse, its merchandise mix had turned pedestrian.
If you’re lucky enough to visit FAO Schwartz today, you’ll see retail as retail should be done. You’re greeted by a singing doorman, who looks like he just stepped off the set of the Nutcracker. A few steps away, you’ve got the now-famous Myachi guys, doing amazing tricks with beanbags.
Step inside the Harry Potter boutique and it’s like you’ve stepped into Hogwarts. The young wizard behind the counter takes one look at you and you’re convinced that you actually have. Little kids are dancing with delight on the famous giant keyboard. And, yes, the fellow with the boomerang airplanes is still there, throwing his little toy plane at the crowd and watching us duck as it pulls a u-ey and returns to him.
The place is teeming with people but somehow it doesn’t feel crowded. Staffers in blue shirts seem to be at every turn, ready to help and answer questions. You’ve really got to see it to believe it — I’ve just barely scratched the surface here.
What matters is, FAO Schwarz has done what every great brand does when it loses its way. It has re-ignited what made FAO great to begin with. The coolest part of the story is that FAO is about to expand exponentially, but it’s going to do it right. This time, it will open its stores as small boutiques, inside some 600-700 Macy’s department stores nationwide.
FAO Schwartz is a profile in relevance if I ever did see one.