FAO Schwarz Resurfaces In NYC; Chicago Next?

Noon Business Hour
November 16, 2018 - 5:05 pm

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK (AP/WBBM NEWSRADIO) — Three years after it closed its beloved toy store on Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwarz is making a return to New York.

A new FAO opens Friday in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, about 10 blocks from its former home near Central Park.

For more than 150 years, FAO Schwarz was known in New York City for its classy and sometimes extravagantly expensive toys. The fantasyland store it opened on Fifth Avenue in 1986 was a tourist attraction, replete with its own theme song, doormen who looked like palace guards and a musical clock tower. Financial problems at the parent company and rising rents closed that store in 2015, but FAO is now pulling back from the worst financial precipice since it was founded in 1862.

In recent weeks at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, workers drilled, hammered and sawed 24 hours a day to get the new store ready. Employees filled shelves with hundreds of plush animals that have long defined the brand — bears, bunnies, elephants, chicks and more. The big entrance clock tower has returned.  And on the second level of the 20,000-square-foot space is a giant piano keyboard mat like the one on which Tom Hanks danced to "Heart and Soul" in the 1988 film "Big."

The 20-foot-long instrument with 60 keys is reflected on the ceiling for people in the plaza below to see. Replicas for sale cost $128.

There is also a toy grocery store where children can shop among artificial produce, complete with small carts, a checkout counter and kitchen supplies. For $75, another interactive station allows kids to adopt baby dolls, while a "nurse" gives lessons on how to care for them. Live magic shows will be staged nearby, next to a spot for assembling custom remote-control cars. A 27-foot-tall rocket ship teems with stuffed bear astronauts.

"We are about experiences. That's what's different from other toy stores," said David Niggli, FAO's chief merchandising officer.

In a global marketing push, pop-up FAO shops are also opening for the holidays in England, Spain and Australia. A March rollout is planned for a permanent store at a mall in Beijing in addition to smaller retail locations in airports and elsewhere across the U.S. and Canada.

FAO Schwarz has gone through multiple corporate takeovers in recent years as retailers struggled to adapt to online sales. It was purchased in 2002 by Right Start Inc., which filed for bankruptcy twice. Toys "R'' Us was the next owner. It sold the FAO name to the California-based ThreeSixty Brands in 2016 before recently declaring bankruptcy itself.

One industry observer suggests FAO Schwarz may roll out other locations, but not on a wide scale. Chicago, which had one of the toy stores on the Magnificent Mile, would be a good candidate.

“They could build a dozen, or maybe something like that,” Jan Rogers Kniffen, CEO of J. Rogers Kniffen Worldwide, told the Noon Business Hour on Friday. “Certainly Chicago would probably be next on your list after New York, given how famous the one there was.”

FAO was founded in 1862 by German immigrant Frederick August Otto Schwarz, specializing in high-end toys, some imported from Europe. By the 20th century, in stores across the country, fancy items included a $1,500 jeweled Etch-A-Sketch and a Barbie-themed, hot pink foosball table for $25,000.

There are a few extravagant items to be had in the new store but plenty of modestly priced items, too.

"We have beautiful artisan pieces here, like rocking horses, but we also have items that are $10," Niggli said. "There's always going to be some of those over-the-top items. I think that's part of what you come to FAO to see. It's part of the magic."

The most luxurious item on sale could be a child-size, drivable Mercedes Benz encrusted with 44,000 Swarovski crystals. Base price: $25,000.

"That's the core of FAO. It's the classics plus the 'Oh, wow' things you've never seen before,"Niggli said.

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