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The Diz Biz
Page 2 of 8

A Model of Guest Service
The week after New Year, I could almost excuse the Post Street store for its inferior "standards", but the quality of guest service has also deteriorated. Lindsay and I visited the store on several occasions throughout our stay in the Bay area, and we were never greeted by a cast member; not a single "Hello" or "Can I help you?" at all. Cast members did not even make eye contact with guests, as they preferred to talk amongst themselves and create further mess within the store.

I had been searching for a Santa Stitch during my recent trip. A visit to the bizarre and stark Disney Store at Costa Mesa, CA (a concept that debuted in 2001 and has been largely ridiculed by the retail industry and has not been rolled out any further than a handful of stores) yielded very little festive merchandise on December 28. We tried the Post Street store, but could not find one onstage.

On the first instance, I approached the main cash registers in the front zone. Three of the five cast members on-stage were huddled behind the cash registers, holding some form of impromptu meeting. Two of the cast members saw me standing there patiently, but continued to listen to the Lead, who was talking and had her back to me. I remained calm and counted how long it would take before I was finally approached. I reach 120 in my head, before the Lead turned around and said "Yeah?" Not the most appropriate approach I have ever encountered, but I asked, "Excuse me, Ma’am, do you happen to have the Santa Stitch?"

The reply was a simple "No" with no further suggestion and not even a smile. I continued to probe by asking if there were any other TDS in the Bay area. She deadpan replied, "I doubt they will have one." I persisted with this train of questioning by asking for confirmation that the second Disney Store to ever open at Pier 39 had recently been closed down. Finally, I got a "Yes". Once again, I asked whether there was another TDS in the area, mentioning that I had checked the White Pages, which had yielded another TDS on 20th Avenue. As I had no idea where that was I needed directions. The Lead stated matter-of-factly "It is Stonestown Mall." Realising that I was unlikely to get any offer of checking the store for me by placing a call or providing directions, I bid her good day and left.

Two further visits yielded similar situations with little or no offer of assistance in my questing for this elusive Santa Stitch. Lindsay and I decided to take a trip to Stonestown Mall ourselves and with the assistance of a local man, we discovered that the mall was on the Metro line. Inside the mall, we found a Version 2.0 TDS that possessed Santa Stitch. A stellar bargain at just $9.49 plus tax (less Disney Club discount!). The cast members in this particular TDS looked harried and stressed, but still took time out to greet as many guests as possible and offer to answer any queries they might have.

Personally, I felt like returning to our hotel via 400 Post Street to present the mythical Santa Stitch to the smug Lead, but Lindsay pointed out that it would accomplish nothing and the Cheesecake Factory inside Macy’s on Union Square was our next destination. I relented and we journeyed to the 8th floor of Macy’s for an excellent meal (I heartily recommend a visit!). Ironically, the view from the balcony of the restaurant presented a birds-eye view of the Post Street store as the cast members locked the doors and went about their "close".

Lost Ideals
Michael’s original vision for the Disney Stores was simple. To supply Disney consumer products directly to the public, offering a unprecedented level of guest service and promote all business divisions through these high-footfall malls as effectively as possible, predominantly Walt Disney Attractions (now Parks & Resorts) and the movie and home entertainment products. Paul Pressler and his team accomplished this mission statement to the letter.

However, the Disney Stores expanded like mating rabbits, producing smaller offspring in more remote locations as the prime sites were quickly exhausted. It was not unheard of for major conurbations to have up to 6 TDS outlets. The first batches of TDS that debuted managed to attract employees that believed in the "Disney Traditions" model (the guest service and knowledge manual) and had a close fondness for the Company. Their knowledge was virtually limitless and they were keen to develop this further and offer tips and advice to guests about the parks and upcoming Disney movie and video releases. However, this pool of talent was quickly exhausted, as TDS expanded into regions were Disney was not as revered or as the turnover of cast members quickened as the quality employees left for other positions in other corporations, keen to develop their retailing ideals along the Disney model. Many employees left behind had no interest in Disney per se and saw the position as just a job.

The Future?
Where does this leave the flagship stores? All four continue to trade, although the Walt Disney Gallery concept has been virtually eliminated. 400 Post Street holds not a single cel or a Walt Disney Classics Collection sculpture. The Internet and more specialised collectible dealers with exemplary customer service have silently stolen the market from TDS, who simply could not afford the staff members necessary to nurture this potentially lucrative product range.

However, this space could be better utilised than being filled with cuddly toys. The drive behind the Disney’s Cuddle Kingdom concept is shrewd. TDS continue to operate in an environment where Disney Consumer Product licensees are at an all time high. Many retailers in the shared mall space with a TDS offer a similar product line and often considerably cheaper due to greater economies of scale. Few companies produce Disney plush toys at the same levels and quality as TDS and Disney Parks & Resorts. The Applause Company’s plush line-up is usually of only average quality and is expensive in comparison. In short, if guests want Disney soft toys, TDS should be the first port of call.

This does not mean that TDS has become redundant as a format. The stores have remained profitable. Those that failed to meet the strict targets set by management have been closed. Others that had reached the end of their onerous leases also bit the dust to prevent the Company being bound by long term contracts on stores that did not met the grade.

The key to the survival of this format is niche. TDS needs to find a formula that will satisfy guest requirements and remain profitable. Disney’s Cuddle Kingdom is obviously generating revenue and plush toys have notoriously high profit margins. The question is whether there are any other hard and soft lines that the Company can squeeze profit from. The collectibles market remains buoyant, but TDS should concentrate on TDS-exclusive merchandise like snowglobes and cheaper porcelain models. Apparel remains an enigma for the group, as Consumer Products have allowed a significant number of licensees that can develop cheaper and better quality clothing, but infant clothing should remain a key focus for TDS as it is not covered by other retailers to the same degree.

Most retail businesses have to decide whether to concentrate on quantity or quality. It is a tough task for any company that takes on both. Economies of scale achieved by an increase in production are usually passed onto the consumer, in an attempt to stimulate sales and consequently, turnover. The original TDS concept targeted shoppers who wanted a quality Disney product that was not available elsewhere. The product line was stratified in an attempt to cater for all requirements. However, consumers soon tired of the higher priced merchandise, in favour of the cheaper souvenir fare, that is now the staple of the brand.

Few guests realise how competitive TDS is for Disney DVDs and compact disc products. Only internet retailers tend to better those offers from TDS. Disney’s Lilo & Stitch was just $19.99 from TDS as opposed to at least $24.99 elsewhere (and as high as $29.99 at specialists like Virgin Megastores) and the Disney Club/Disney Vacation Club discount reduces this figure to a competitive $17.99. Throw in the various pre-purchase offers like lithographs and gift vouchers and the price is a virtual giveaway to stimulate footfall.

 

 

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