Welcome to our World
Iconic toy retailer FAO Schwarz used to have a theme song that was played in their flagship stores - “Welcome to our world, welcome to our world, welcome to our world of toys.” To anyone who was a parent in that time and place it will be as familiar as the Barney theme tune or the Lion King soundtrack.
Going to FAO Schwarz wasn’t simply going to a shop. You entered their world. And that’s what great retail is. You forget you’re in a shop and for a while you’re transported to another world, full of unique and memorable experiences. In FAO Schwarz’s world you’ll find life sized stuffed animals, the floor piano that Tom Hanks jumped on in “Big” and, yes, that song.
For a while it was one of the top 5 tourist destinations in New York. It’s now made a welcome comeback at Rockefeller Plaza and in concessions all over the world. David Niggli, chief merchandising officer, is quoted as saying “FAO Schwarz is needed more than ever.”
Even in the years before the pandemic, retailers and designers were trying to re-awake customers’ interest in physical shopping. They aren’t bored with shopping, we said. They’re bored with shops. Customers expect an experience. Now, as they all venture back into bricks and mortar, they don’t want just transactions. They want us to create worlds where they can wander and lose themselves for a while.
Look at the greats. Samaritaine. Eataly. Niketown. All of them iconic experiences where you enter another world. But worlds don’t have to be huge or sell luxury goods. Aesop and Lush have comparatively tiny stores but they are their own little worlds.
Here are a few that I saw recently on my travels.
Samaritaine is at the upper end. After a $US750 million dollar refit, it has everything from a breathtaking staircase and atrium to a very cool undulating glass façade on Rue de Rivoli. It’s not just one world, there’s a world for everyone there.
But you don’t have to go top end. Zara just opened its flagship on the Champs Élysées. It’s immaculately lit, built with high quality, beautifully detailed materials, and enhanced with the cutting edge in digital and holographic installations. Of course, the clothing and prices are still Zara, so it’s a very inviting world to spend time in.
Ted Baker created a surreal world based around the laundromat experience in a store in Johannesburg.
Paris department store BHV hosts an eccentric world of hardware in its basement. They can make a display of white paint into an immersive experience.
Retail worlds are everywhere. Check out Poterie Ravel in Aubagne, an immersion into the craft where you can watch everything being made and purchase it a few steps away in beautifully authentic surroundings.
And they don’t have to cost a fortune to build. Our goal as designers is to create a unique world for every brand we work for. Have a look at what we’re doing for Barbeques Galore - creating an immersive world of “treasured moments around the flame” in every store, on a very modest budget.
We shouldn’t settle for purely transactional experiences in retail. Every shop can be its own world, large or small. As Mr Niggli said, now it’s needed more than ever.