1. Archive

F-A-O spells "fun and fantasy' in toys

PARENTAL ADVISORY: Steer clear of the main concourse at Tampa's West Shore Plaza from now on unless you don't mind your children tugging you toward a store with the drawing power of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

There's a talking tree that tells stories. Ren & Stimpy, the Nickelodeon cartoon stars, stage one of their comic routines from a shelf top. A piano keyboard big enough to play chopsticks with your feet awaits a budding Astaire/Horowitz.

Indeed, FAO Schwarz has brought a slice of Fifth Avenue retailing fantasy to its first mall flagship store in Florida.

But if all the hands-on gimmicks are not enough to draw a crowd to the store's grand opening at 11 a.m. Saturday, the famous toymeisters have trucked in a secret weapon.

They've stocked a whole department full of nigh-on-impossible-to-find Mighty Morphin Power Ranger paraphernalia that promises to be cleaned out within a few hours.

"We've created a store that capitalizes on all the fun and fantasy of our main store in Manhattan," said John Eyler, president and chief executive officer of New York-based FAO Schwarz. "There is virtually all of the hands-on interactivity here that we have on Fifth Avenue. And we have most of the depth of merchandise."

The West Shore store is one of nine new mall flagships the company will have opened since July. And the 12,000-square-foot layout is four times the size of the standard FAO Schwarz shop the company had been opening in regional malls for the past decade.

Actually the move was more than an attempt to boost sales growth. Research found customers disappointed at the lack of pizazz in the pint-sized versions.

In comparison, the new prototype is a carnival jammed with 9,000 toys.

Each store has six sets of plush-covered robots _ each of which does its own sound and action routine. A huge World of Barbie department is a study in shocking pink brimming with everything from a fountain that bubbles with thousands of Barbie shoes to Barbie-emblem ties and jockey shorts for grown-ups. No less than six sound systems pump mood music into different themed sections of the store.

"After a while you learn to tune it out," said store manager Pamela Kowa, who has been in retailing since she started working in her parents' apparel stores at age 12.

Stores this size usually are set up in a few chaotic days before opening. This one is so decked out with visual frills that it took 10.

Kowa, a Florida State University retailing program graduate, supervised the workathon and training a staff of 30. All of them spent a week working from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. unloading seven semitrailer-truck loads of toys and learning how to play with them while stocking the shelves. The woman who put life in all the animated characters did her programing job from midnight to mid-morning.

Now Kowa is ready to pass on to her charges some of her other unusual on-the-job skills, such as how to blow a bubble within a bubble _ something that took her a month of practice to perfect.

Founded 132 years ago by a German immigrant named Frederick August Otto Schwarz, the company is now owned by a huge Dutch retail concern. A niche player with annual revenues of about $80-million, FAO Schwarz is swimming against the tide among toy retailers in the United States.

Today five companies (Toys R Us, Kmart, Target, Wal-Mart and Kay-Bee) control two-thirds of the U.S. market. Their approach is low prices, warehouse-sized selections and minimal service.

Schwarz counters with customer service (15 employees will work the floor on Saturdays), free gift wrap, a novel environment and a huge variety of toys and plush figures not sold anywhere else. It also stocks 3,000 mainstream market toys, including the 150 top-selling toys the discounters carry at essentially the same price.

The company has narrowed its approach to children younger than 12. That means no video games. And for more than 20 years it has meant no realistic-looking toy guns.

Schwarz also features a large selection of collectible dolls and plush animals, meaning many customers are older folks buying for themselves. In fact, kids buying for themselves account for less than 10 percent of sales.

Although the company has shaped an upscale image for itself with such extravagances as a gas-powered model car that goes for $5,200, many items are reasonably priced all the way down to a fortune-telling fish that goes for a quarter. The average price tag is $26, the average sale $41.

A former chief executive of Hartmarx Inc.'s retail apparel subsidiary, Eyler clearly enjoys his domain of playful merchandise. Lugging a 6-foot Patrick the Pup plush toy off the shelf, he spreads the soft area-rug-sized creature across the floor.

"Wouldn't you just love to lay on one of these and take a nap or watch TV?" he said.