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Disney reimagines its stores to be more like a vacation

A Disney Store is pictured in Los Angeles, September 25, 2017.
Mario Anzuoni | Reuters
A Disney Store is pictured in Los Angeles, September 25, 2017.

Quietly, like a mouse on tiptoe, Disney overhauled its retail store at the Northridge Fashion Center mall in late July. Out went the twisty Pixie Path aisles, the ornate displays, the green walls and the color-changing fiberglass trees. In came a movie-theater-size screen, a simplified floor plan, white walls and more items for fashion-conscious adults.

What was Disney up to?

As it turns out, the Disney Store here was a prototype, and the company has been monitoring sales and consumer feedback as it prepares to revamp its 340-store chain.

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"We really want to learn as we go, especially through the holidays, so we're going to roll the new look out slowly," Paul Gainer, executive vice president for Disney Stores Worldwide, said in an interview on Monday. "So far, we're really thrilled with the results."

The redesign makes Disney's stores a bit more like Disney's theme parks. For instance, daily parades at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida will be streamed live to those colossal video screens. During the parades, store personnel will put out mats for shoppers to sit on and roll out souvenir carts stocked with cotton candy and light-up Mickey Mouse ears.

The screens could easily be used to stream other events, such as red carpet arrivals for Disney movie premieres. That kind of programming could bolster foot traffic, and thus sales — while also turning the stores into a more potent promotional platform for Disney's films, television shows and theme parks.

Disney is trying to keep its stores relevant as the popularity of online shopping turns many malls into ghost towns. Even the strongest retailers are scrambling: Apple recently unveiled a new approach at its biggest stores, which are being remarketed as "town squares" that offer classes and meeting space. Fail to give shoppers a reason to visit in person and you risk becoming Toys "R" Us, which filed for bankruptcy this month.

"We have to continue to optimize our real estate," Mr. Gainer said. The Disney Store chain, founded in 1987 and once numbering more than 1,000 locations, will not grow or shrink as part of the overhaul, he said.

As it attempts a new mall strategy, Disney is also remaking its e-commerce operation. ShopDisney.com is replacing DisneyStore.com.

The new site will have a less cluttered look and a vastly expanded assortment of designer merchandise aimed at adults (Mickey-themed Ethan Allen furniture and a $350 Siwy denim jacket with Minnie embellishments will be on offer). The site will also stock more items that previously were available only in stores inside Disney theme parks.

"We have been very focused on families and kids," Mr. Gainer said. "We really want to expand that audience." ShopDisney will even offer Halloween costumes for adults (and pets).

Some customers at the Northridge store seem to miss the old design, which was introduced seven years ago — before Disney bought the "Star Wars" franchise — and had more touches that were classically Disney, like a minicastle.

But positive feedback so far outweighs the negative. "I can't stop staring," Olivia Hernandez said of the video screen, which storm troopers marched across on a recent Saturday afternoon when the store was packed with shoppers.

But did the high-definition video make her want to buy "Star Wars" merchandise? She sheepishly pointed to her son, who was trying on an X-Wing fighter pilot costume in the aisle.