|FAO Schwarz: The Demise of a Legend|
|Where is "Our World of Toys" and how does this effect doll collecting?|
First, I suppose I should
remark that FAO Schwarz hasn't gone completely out of business--well, at least
not officially. The "Flagship" 5th Avenue FAO Schwarz is still a tourist
landmark and open for business in New York City. But, with the exception of that
store and a few others (Las Vegas, Orlando), there isn't much left of the FAO
Schwarz toy store chain as it was before The Right Start Company purchased it
just a little over a year ago--in late Fall, 2001.
First Signs of Trouble
At the time of the initial purchase, there were 40 FAO Schwarz stores nationwide in the US. Right Start only bought 22 of the 40 locations when they agreed to purchase FAO Schwarz, so 18 locations closed immediately at the beginning of 2002. At the time of the purchase, I reported the following quote from www.playthings.com in my Dolls This Week column:
"FAO Schwarz is a 140-year-old brand and an American icon. We are deeply honored to be entrusted with protecting the integrity of this brand," said Right Start CEO Jerry R. Welch.
Of course, it was immediately alarming that "protecting the integrity" of the brand including closing half the chain down. I also reported that Welch had said in the same article that "The acquisition was "a perfect fit" with Right Start's existing retail operations" which included the educational brand Right Start and specialty toys retailer Zainy Brainy. At the time, I actually didn't see the fit--boring and boxy stores in a not-so-upscale environment (Right Start) with upscale FAO.
Wellll...those 8 FAO Schwarz stores closed so fast at the beginning of 2002 that it made your head spin. At the time, the biggest and best toy store for a doll collector anywhere in my area (far Northern California) was the FAO Schwarz in Sacramento--I had been a long-time customer there, and was very upset when they were among the stores immediately closed in the merger. That store was in the Arden Fair Mall, and it was quite charming, with its trademark moving plush and wonderful Barbie Boutique with a great display of collectible Barbies. All that was left in that huge mall toy-wise after the merger was the awful (messy aisles, indifferent teenage help) KB Toys. BUT...at least in Northern California, we still had our flagship store, the beautiful 3-story store right off Union Square (about 1 1/2 hours away). This store was a landmark, and a MUST for all families with children of ANY age visiting the Union Square shopping district.
Welcome To Our World of Toys
Immediately, there were changes in THAT store that didn't sit well with long time San Francisco customers. This included the store losing some of its trademark charm and, instead, going with a more organized and much less charming "Right Start" look. There was also IMMEDIATELY less customer service and special treatment of its customers. THAT was a big mistake, since FAO always had the highest prices for toys, but the best service for those prices--if you were one of their collectors, they would turn into a pretzel to get you the doll you needed. There were special collector events and signings. There were special 30% off the entire store days, etc. etc. And, the store was MAGICAL, especially around Christmas time.
OK, so all of that went away, which was an omen of more bad things to come. But, at least, the store was STILL THERE, and with some of its trademark elements like the 3-story animated singing toys in the entry, the big hall of Steiff, Madame Alexander dolls, a large area for collectible (not just play) Barbie and a penny-candy hall etc., it was still a store for big and small kids alike to dream. When you entered the store, the animated toys ALWAYS sang its song, "welcome to our world, welcome to our world, welcome to our world of toys..."
Goodbye to The World of Toys
Ahem. that lasted for another 10 months ago. At the very end of 2002//beginning of 2003, it was announced that FAO, Inc. (basically, the old Right Start Company renamed), parent of FAO, Right Start and Zainy Brainy, was bankrupt, and going to close more of its stores, including the flagship stores in San Francisco and Boston. Further than that, its been hard to get full answer from the company as to which of the FAOs, besides Las Vegas, Orlando and and New York, will survive the bankruptcy filing.
Why This Impacts Doll Collectors
FAO Schwarz has been a major retailer and promoter of collectible dolls for many, many years. As a child in the 1960s, I was always enchanted by their Madame Alexander doll display in New York. Seriously enchanted. In fact, my current doll obsession was no doubt fueled by those early trips with my eager and similarly enchanted mom and sister. Toys. Enchantment. Magic. Things that build future collectors.
Have you ever shopped for dolls at Toys R Us or WalMart? Chances are, yes, you have, since those are now the two leading retailers of toys in the US now.. Have you ever had an enchanting experience there? A magical one? Chances are, no. Sure, you got a great price. And, that was probably it. No enchantment. And, really, not much in the way of collectible dolls at either retailer, either, especially with Toys R Us de-emphasis on their collectible Barbies.
With the loss of FAO, enchantment and magic now falls to the dwindling ranks of independently owned doll and toy retailers. This may or may not be a good thing for collectors--its certainly good for the independent retailers, who get more of the collectors' discretionary doll income with FAO now a reduced entity. Also highly impacted by the dwindling FAO Schwarz presence will be collectible doll companies who have depended on FAO for large wholesale doll orders and for great and broad exposure for their dolls to the general public. Members of the general (non-doll collecting) public MIGHT not ever find themselves inside an independent toy or doll retailer, but members of that same general public DID like to wander into FAO Schwarz. For the magic.
by Denise Van Patten
Next Week: My Personal Goodbye to the San Francisco Store
Background: FAO Schwarz was founded by German Immigrant Frederick Otto August Schwarz in New York in 1862.