It is 8am on a rainy October Monday at Selfridges, and all my Christmases have come early. Today, the legendary FAO Schwarz, America’s oldest toy retailer, will open a brand-spanking new, 22,000 square foot toy shop to the London public for the first time, but I’ve been given a sneak peek.
Against a nearby wall, gleaming, child-sized electric Lamborghinis to tear around in are stacked upon shelves. Strolling through a forest of Playmobil models, Hot Wheels cars and Lego box sets, I come to mountains of fizzy twin cherry sweets, strawberry bonbons and glutinous, gelatinous cola bottles. Resisting the sugar high, I come face to face with a £800 life-size Nutcracker soldier, then almost careen into plush £1,650 toy elephants. If I’m overexcited, then tiny shoppers are going to be over the moon.
To brief the uninitiated, FAO Schwarz is a 157-year-old New York toy shop predating the comparatively sprightly Empire State Building (its first “toy bazaar” was opened in Baltimore by German immigrant Frederick August Otto Schwarz in 1870). Its former shopfront in the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue was a Manhattan must-see, where vertiginous stuffed giraffes peered haughtily at gaudy novelties like a bejewelled Etch A Sketch made from more than 10,000 dazzling handset sapphire Swarovski crystals. It specialised in traditional toys with fantastical twists: if Roald Dahl had cast Willy Wonka as a toy shop impresario, FAO Schwarz would have been a worthy stomping ground. The shop was immortalised in Home Alone 2, and Big, the Tom Hanks film about a child magically whisked into an adult’s body, made the store’s iconic dance-on piano a magnet for the young at heart. And here it is in London, on the fourth floor of Selfridges, making it FAO’s grandest venture across the Atlantic to date, dwarfing the New York hub — there’s also a huge branch in Beijing.
Wandering around the cavernous, still-empty shop floor, I am living my own Big. FAO Schwarz has stuck close to tradition: an electronic keyboard has just been plugged in so, shoeless, I slide across it. A qualified piano teacher will be stationed here to teach scales to would-be Mozarts. Meanwhile, a sugary soundtrack features Taylor Swift’s Lover and Katy Perry’s California Gurls. “We put one Christmas song in for every three when we’re three months from Christmas”, explains Maria Jarmola, Selfridges’ brand & Christmas PR manager, who is walking me around. “Then every two when we’re two months away, and so forth.”
Across the room, the giant gears of a replica clock face turn ponderously, chiming every hour while a tiny model train chuffs along a miniature track on its exterior; a sprawling menagerie of Steiff stuffed toys — penguins, bears, and oh-so-fluffy sheep — wait patiently for new homes. Paddington Bear is front and centre (Michael Bond, the Paddington bear author, purchased and named his eponymous muse from Selfridges’ cuddly toy section 58 years ago). “Toy trends are, obviously, very driven by films”, Jarmola tells me.
There are relatively few LED TV screens on the whole floor, one advertising Disney’s Frozen 2 line, as hatches are battened down for the sequel’s release in cinemas, in keeping with a desire to avoid overstimulating a generation who spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen (compare that with three a day in 1995). “The idea is to be interactive, but without screens,” a buyer tells me. “We want children running around, from one curiosity to the next.”
It’s this IRL joy that FAO Schwarz is banking on: you don’t get that on Amazon. For that reason, so-called “experience” stations are positioned between the stacks of toys that 70 staff have spent weeks laying out for the opening (there are currently 130,000 toys in stock, primed and ready for purchase). I head over to the Build-A-Bear station, where a man is loading half a tonne of bear stuffing into a machine that swirls cotton innards like candyfloss, ready to plump the customer’s chosen soft toy.
A friendly mechanic in a red and blue uniform helps me assemble a remote-controlled racing car, selecting the colour and customising its chassis on an iPad before assembling the model in a “garage”. There’s a racetrack to drive yours around on. This is the modus operandi of the competitive modern toy shop, uniting the digital and the real worlds. The range also reflects the nation’s mood: National Geographic toys are presented in pride of place, in order to harness the rising interest in conservation and ecology from kids and parents alike. The “Blue Planet bounce” is still making waves.
Bestsellers include a £100 Peppa Pig doll’s house, and such staples form evergreen product lines that sell consistently, as opposed to “fast fashion” crazes. “The point is to cater for different generations of adults buying for children, too,” the buyer confirms.
Grandparents might prefer to pick out FAO Schwarz’s own-brand range of “traditional” toys in gilded red packaging: marble stunt runs and boxes of magic tricks. Another section is devoted to the toy store’s Discovery range: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning toys, from a holographic planetarium to e-drumsticks that allow kids to learn percussion without buying the whole set.
"Millennials will be delighted to see stacks of cuddly emojis – cute avocados, strawberries and pineapples"
What about sustainability? Jan-Eric Kloth, chief operating officer at ThreeSixty Group, owner of FAO Schwarz, says it has made “steps in the right direction by reducing plastic use in our packaging”. But the buying team admits that the sheer speed at which toy trends accelerate is a challenge. It’s tough to tell a child that each toy is for life, not just for Christmas. FAO Schwarz is rolling with the times, too. Millennials will be delighted to see cuddly emojis: Jellycat avocados, woolly strawberries and cute knitted pineapples, which the buying team expect “to fly off the shelves come opening time”. The store is dotted with Instagrammable spots, from a giant stuffed unicorn to FAO’s doll-making space. “Children are invited to pick a baby, name it, weigh it, decide what colour its eyes are and decide what they want it to be when it’s older,” I’m told. Likewise, an interactive screen invites users to place a hand on it to “read” their Lego character. It’s random, I’m reassured, as I am assigned a hideous bat creature.
When the store relaunched in New York last year, its hallmark toy soldiers and their uniforms were redesigned by supermodel Gigi Hadid. ThreeSixty wants its employees to bring a sense of “theatre” when interacting with customers, and the New York Times reported that even cashiers and IT staff employed for the reopening had to audition for their jobs on stage at an Upper West Side theatre. I stop to pose with two new employees in costume as they escort pink and brown dog mascots Patrick and Penelope around the store. “It’s their snack time”, soldier Niall confides convivially. “Wave, Penelope,” barks a staff instructor, stiffly. The strange group slope off.
There are also robotic dogs and drones, too, and a £20 game of Mattel’s Pictionary Air that imports the parlour game to your iPad. I’m particularly smitten with the Toniebox, a pillowy audio player for babies that plays different bedtime stories depending on which nursery tale figurine is installed (parents can record their own lullabies, which is cute). Online shopping might have the edge when it comes to convenience, but there’s nothing like the magic of an IRL toy store