Disney Making Its Stores Magical

The New York Times has a fascinating front page story today about a new strategy by the Walt Disney Company. At a time when most retailers are pulling back, Disney has decided to pour a great deal of money into its retail stores in order to make them an experience that children will beg their parents to be a part of -- like mini-theme parks. They plan to do it by using the Apple Stores as their guide, pumped full of steroids pixie dust.

So how might the new Disney stores look? The NY Times reports:

Theaters will allow children to watch film clips of their own selection, participate in karaoke contests or chat live with Disney Channel stars via satellite. Computer chips embedded in packaging will activate hidden features. Walk by a "magic mirror" while holding a Princess tiara, for instance, and Cinderella might appear and say something to you.

It's your birthday? With the push of a button, eight 13-foot-tall Lucite trees will crackle with video-projected fireworks and sound. There will be a scent component; if a clip from Disney's coming "A Christmas Carol" is playing in the theater, the whole store might suddenly be made to smell like a Christmas tree.

As I'm sure Disney would put it, its "imagineers" want to make visiting their stores a magical experience. They don't want kids to just visit when they want a new Mickey shirt or the latest Disney movie on DVD. They want them to visit these stores for their own sake.

I think this new strategy is an interesting one. Having children -- their target audience -- visit their stores more often should spur sales. After all, there tends to be some correlation between the number of customers that enter a store and merchandise sold.

The question you might ask, then, is whether or not the increase in sales more than pays for the additional investment. Yet, I'm not sure this is precisely the right question. That might be the question for a company like Apple or Macy's.

Disney captures its target audience's attention through several media. Maybe through more visitors to their stores, Disney Channel ratings will also increase, with kids finding out about new TV shows. Maybe more store visits will help promote their movies. Or maybe they will increase theme park attendance, since kids will be even more eager to get a fuller experience at one of their parks. I think looking at this strategy in a vacuum doesn't give it its full due.

Their timing might seem odd, given the state of the economy. Yet this process will take some time. After the year or two it takes to revamp their stores, the economy will have largely improved, and consumers should be ready to shop again.

Also fascinating is Disney's decision to bring in Apple's Steve Jobs for help. What exactly will he be doing? The NY Times explains:

The involvement of Mr. Jobs, the Apple chief executive who joined the Disney board with the 2006 acquisition of Pixar, is particularly notable. For the first time, Mr. Jobs's fingerprints can be seen on Disney strategy, in the same way that he influenced the look and feel of Apple's own immensely popular retail chain. While Mr. Jobs did not personally toil on the Imagination Park concept, he pushed Disney to move far past a refurbishment.

Having Jobs on their board certainly has its benefits. Apple stores tend to be some of the highest grossing per square foot in many malls. Jobs allowed Disney access to proprietary information about his stores' development and operation, according to the Times. Here's some of what Disney took away:

Disney will adopt Apple touches like mobile checkout (employees will carry miniature receipt printers in their aprons) and the emphasis on community (Disney's theater idea is an extension of Apple's lecture spaces). The focus on interactivity -- parents will be able to book a Disney Cruise on touch-screen kiosks while their children play -- reflects an Apple hallmark. Employees can use iPhones to control those high-tech trees.

I'll be really interested to see how the stores turn out. I've always believed that Disney's parks are an incredible example of attention to detail and aesthetic effect, much like Apple's products. Even if its new stores capture a fraction of the wonder that their theme parks hold for children, then I think their new concept could very well work.