Well, no sooner had the digital ink dried on my piece about F. A. O. Schwarz closing their famous Fifth Avenue shop, when I received a communication from the company saying that I had it all wrong. They said “The company is completely committed to building on the legacy of the FAO Schwarz brand through a flagship location in midtown Manhattan and unique merchandising offerings.” Which sounds wonderful, and will be very welcome to the company’s many fans and to me as well. I love the shop and the brand.
The point of my earlier article was, however, that the company might want to be open to the possibility that it should be selling customer experiences, rather than focusing on individual toys that are so easy for others to copy or discount.
So I thought I would put my friends over at Silicon Valley incubator mach49 (full disclosure – I am a faculty partner of theirs) on the spot and asked how they might re-imagine F. A. O. Schwarz making money as a destination. What they suggested was to structure the thinking by considering big problem spaces that might be relevant to the FAO Schwarz brand, and then what people might be willing to pay for in those spaces. They had some pretty interesting ideas.
Education: Imagine an in-store experience in which children could be taught valuable skills in a fun, interactive way that would be marketed as a way for kids to get a leg up on developing a unique capability. For instance, kids could be tutored in how to write letters, send them and get a responses back. Or what if teams of kids joined teams to compete a spelling bee or chess game, using, of course, the store facilities and support.
Health care: Imagine combining parents’ concerns about children’s physical health with the increasingly planned nature of children’s play time – one could imagine fun fitness classes kids could take together with their doll or stuffed animal. Or a fun-to-experience fitness program, with toy-themed companions. For instance, they could put a bicycle on an electricity meter and have kids see if they can light a bulb or generate a certain amount of power.
Sustainability and environment: There are a lot of people who would pay to educate their children about these topics. Imagine a visit to a pretend house, fitted out with solar panels that could power toy cars, kitchens that encouraged you to save water, and perhaps ways to save energy or be greener at home. There could be talks or classes from groups like the Conservation Ambassadors on animals complete with a stuffed animal to take home to remember the lessons learned.
Creativity and Design thinking: Imagine if rather than prepackaged art kits, the stores had a space where kids could experiment with materials, with a “maker” (a type of designer) there to coach them in the latest in design thinking and prototyping. This might appeal to older kids for whom having a portfolio of design pieces could be an important differentiator for college or jobs. One could also imagine curated art or skill development projects that change monthly, giving people a reason to return. And we’re only scratching the surface of possibilities opened up by 3D printing.
Music: All those tiger mothers out there are already investing millions in educating their darlings to play instruments or otherwise become musically accomplished. It’s a space that is ripe for disruption, as existing programs haven’t really changed the basic model for music education in decades. What if Schwarz could design the kind of music learning experience that would make kids want to practice?
Social Venturing: Imagine the stores becoming a ‘go to’ site for kids who are passionate about solving social problems, potentially linking the creation and sale of unique toys to the causes they support. There are literally hundreds of kids’ social networking groups – F. A. O. Schwarz could become the hub of a network that could give them scale and have real impact.
Now, are all these good ideas? Of course not. Some will be impractical, some won’t be profitable enough and some won’t be enjoyable enough to keep kids coming back. But they are examples of ways in which the fabulous F. A. O. Schwartz brand can renew its relevance to a whole new generation of kids.