Twice as large as its previous store, Disney Store’s new branch on Oxford Street boasts a host of innovative features. John Ryan reports.

Disney Store, Oxford Street

Design In-house

Size 8,500 sq ft

Number of floors Two

Outstanding feature The outsized fairy castle

UK joint managing director Teresa Tideman

It’s a little under a year since Disney Store Europe opened its first new-look store in Madrid’s La Vaguada shopping centre. Back then it was the second of its kind, the first having been unveiled in the US in the same year. The concept made landfall in the British Isles last August with a store in Belfast, but it was not until last week that it finally made it to the mainland, by opening a branch in London.

This one is at 350 Oxford Street and, at about 8,500 sq ft, is more than double the size of the previous store from which the retailer traded in the area. As well as being bigger, it replaces the former Mexx flagship, in which the Dutch casualwear retailer seemed to trade for an age after announcing its decision to quit the UK, before finally vacating the building.

Disney Store Europe senior vice-president and joint managing director Teresa Tideman says one of the reasons for London being only the 29th new format store is that “we wanted to get the right location and it was a matter of waiting”. What Disney Stores inherited was a three-storey structure - ground, basement and a mezzanine -with relatively low ceilings and a highly defined internal geography. So, converting this store into one of The Magic Kingdom’s retail outposts was never going to be straightforward.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the customer staircase, which was directly inside the entrance, in the middle of the shop. The major architectural feature of the Mexx store, the challenge now would be what to do with it. It is, in fact, still there - although you’d need a pretty good knowledge of what was there before to work that out.

Standing at the entrance to the new Disney Store, what now confronts the visitor is a castle. Anybody who has visited any of the new format stores will be familiar with in-store castles, but this one is of a different order.

King of the castle

The castle has been fashioned to fit around the staircase - the upper floor has been closed and access to the stairs leading to the basement is now through the castle’s main door. Of course, the usual (Tinker)bells and whistles feature, with everyone’s favourite fairy whizzing across the front of the structure and a Rapunzel-like figure appearing in the rooms at the top of one of the towers. Director of marketing Jonathan Storey demonstrates all of this with an iPhone, through which the store’s technological wizardry can be controlled.

It is the sheer size of the castle that impresses most, however. On a different scale to what has been done before, the notion of integrating the staircase into the castle to form a feature is a clever solution to an obvious problem. The ceiling on both floors is also higher. Jim Fielding, president of Disney Stores worldwide, says: “We went as high as you could go, stripping things right back.” This has made the space feel considerably larger than when it was a Mexx, even allowing for the fact that only two floors are now being traded.

“This new store allows staff to spread out”

Jim Fielding, Disney Store

All change

Designed in house, as all of the other new format stores have been, this shop is essentially a black box with a black lighting rig and spots throughout that place the emphasis on the product and allow specific areas to be lit at the touch of a controlling smartphone - all of which makes this version of the city centre Disney Store formula seem familiar. However, much has changed since La Vaguada in 2010.

New areas have been added and names have been amended. There is, for instance, a fixture in the basement that was known as ‘the playhouse’. This has morphed into the Disney Junior Fixture.

The baby area has also been altered. As Fielding explains: “We have ‘baby’ in most of our stores, but they don’t have an intensification like this.” Practically, this translates as a bigger piece of mid-shop equipment that carries everything from clothing to scent, the latter being a new departure for Disney Stores, which was launched in March.

Both floors are of equal size and the fact that the staircase is in the middle of things means the shopper flows around each floor whether they choose to or not. And while doing so, the thing that will probably be apparent is the preponderance of stock that has been made specifically for London. There are Mickey Mouse lifeguards in sentry boxes, Mickey Mouse Beefeater soft toys and Union Jack mugs with, naturally, a face of Mickey in the middle of the flag.

Neither Fielding or Tideman are forthcoming about the cost of all of this work, but as Fielding puts it: “Quality costs time and money.” He adds: “[In the old store] the staff were better than the space that they were working in; this new store allows them to spread out.”

Equally, Fielding and Tideman are mute when it comes to the matter of current trading. But it is fair to comment that, in the latest trading results for the year to the end of September, Disney Stores saw a massive revival in its UK fortunes - sales were up more than 11% to £111.5m and pre-tax losses reduced to just over £1.7m against more than £11m in the previous year. Which perhaps goes to show how a little imagination and a lot of cash really can yield results.

Even if Disney is not your thing, there are the Marvel comic characters, which have their own hi-tech area in this store, the Pirates of the Caribbean space, where a life-size Jack Sparrow awaits and an area where you can build a (remote-controlled) car.

This is quite unlike anything else on Oxford Street and it’s probably worth bearing in mind that it’s about treats for kids. There are numerous pieces of research purporting to show that parents will cut back on almost everything else before they opt to let their children go without. On this reckoning, Tideman and Fielding should be feeling happy and reasonably confident. On the back of a wave of successful characters and stores that really do put the magic back into The Magic Kingdom, 2011 may actually turn out to be the year in which Disney Stores returns to profit in the UK.