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Revival of iconic NY toy store feeds holiday-time nostalgia

Ali Bekhtaoui

Agence France-Presse

New York, United States | Mon, December 3, 2018 | 05:01 am
Revival of iconic NY toy store feeds holiday-time nostalgia

An FAO Schwarz employee directs customers outside the new FAO Schwartz store in Rockefeller Center in New York on Nov. 21, 2018. (AFP/Don Emmert)

Three years after shutting down its iconic Big Apple venue, toy store FAO Schwarz has been reborn, offering a nostalgic holiday-time fix to native New Yorkers and tourists alike.

"I went to the original, it was magical," said Anna, a teenager from New York on a chilly late-November morning. 

"But this one is as magical too."

The store is only about one-third the size of its former incarnation at the foot of Central Park opposite the Plaza Hotel, made famous in the hit Tom Hanks comedy Big and other movies.

But the new venue boasts a festive address of its own just a stone's throw away from the giant Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center and its skating rink below.

The store revives the old FAO Schwarz' red and black color scheme with gold lettering even as its new owners, ThreeSixty Group, reposition the brand after prohibitive rental costs doomed the old store.

Besides New York, ThreeSixty plans to open an FAO Schwarz in Beijing. The brand, which was founded in 1862 by a German immigrant, is also opening pop-up stores at department stores elsewhere in the United States and overseas.

ThreeSixty, which has been backed by private equity firm AEA Investors, has adopted a meticulous approach to details in the store since the store was opened November 16.

The venture has been launched as retailers know they must give consumers a reason to show up in person at a time when e-commerce sales are rising. It arrives in the first holiday season since the demise of the once-grand retail chain Toys "R" Us. 

"The key to this store is experience," Chief Merchandising Officer David Niggli said of the ambition to leave children wild-eyed and probably exhausted.

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Highlights include magic tricks, certificates to "adopt" a doll and a "Build-a-Bear" workshop where visitors can design their own plush models.

"It's not only a place where I like to buy things," said Claudia, who was visiting the store from Argentina with her son, Juan Ignacio.

"It's also a cozy and a charming place where I enjoy to walk and spend time." 

Shoppers can wander around and compare different Barbie options, Ravensburger puzzles and myriad stuffed animal creations.

"You don't have the same feeling when you are seated at home online," Niggli said.

"You don't get to interact with a sales staff that applied for their job going on stage, you don't have costume characters, you are not interviewed to see if you can adopt a baby doll," he added. "All of those things are unique."

The store also aims to take advantage of new digital tools to build interest with a new generation of shoppers.

Potential "Instagrammables" for customers include the "dance-on piano," where visitors can take a cue from Hanks in Big and take a twirl.

The company also enlisted model Gigi Hadid, who has some 45 million Instagram followers, to design its toy soldiers outfits, including the first-ever version with female soldiers.

Sandy, a mother from Connecticut, said the store "has very special toys and very special arrangements," even if it's a splurge.

"It seems magical...and expensive," she added. "But it's in New York, it's fancy."

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