Maybe your business should have a lot more in common with show biz than you think

Peter L. Harris was trying to be good -- honest. But he just couldn't help it.

As he was leading a visitor around the F.A.O. Schwarz store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Harris, 44, promised to contain his enthusiasm. But it was so hard. Already he had almost pulled his visitor's arm from its socket as he pumped -- not shook -- his hand. As he walked by the jugglers and the huge Teddy Ruxpin bear that, at the push of a button, will tell you how to find anything in the store, Harris had greeted every employee by name. Most smiled and said "hi" back, but a big hello to a man not wearing a name tag produced only a glare in response. "Oh. You're not supposed to say hello to your undercover guys, right?" So Harris promised again to control himself. And he did . . . for about five minutes. Then he spotted the family from Cleveland.

They were on the second floor, in the toy automobile section, playing with a car designed to do a series of 360-degree loops as it zoomed down a racecourse. The problem was, it wasn't doing much of anything other than flying off the track.

First the eight-year-old tried. No luck. Then his big sister. Crash. Dad gave it a whirl and promptly sent the car heading in the direction of the scaled-down Ferrari Testarossa Jr. ($14,500, not including tax and shipping). Harris couldn't stand it anymore and walked over.

"Hi. I work here, and, you know, there's a trick to it. You have to rub the car back and forth on the track a few times, then let it go.'

As Harris explained it, he demonstrated. The car promptly crashed again.

By now, all these flying cars had started to attract a crowd, but Harris didn't seem to notice. He picked up the car again. And again, crunch. Finally a nine-year-old boy walked up and said you couldn't let the car go until you heard a click that indicated the car was completely rewound. The boy revved it back and forth, waited for the click, and let it go. The car performed as promised.

There was a round of applause from the 20 or so people watching. The nine-year-old looked embarrassed, but Harris was thrilled. He promptly took a mock bow.

That bow may have been fake, but the atmosphere and the work that led to it were anything but. The jugglers, talking teddy bears, and toys you can play with are all designed to win customer approval. Approval they can show either by applauding -- or spending.

The philosophy behind all this is simple. "Marketing," says Harris, "is theater." And he is absolutely right.

When you start thinking about how you can differentiate your company, you're likely to consider competing on price, service, or selection. That's fine. But it just doesn't go far enough. After all, most everybody thinks along those lines.

Presentation, on the other hand, can make a store stand out. It doesn't have to go as far as F.A.O. Schwarz does. When you visit the Fifth Avenue store, you walk on a red carpet, can play with a 96-square-foot wooden train set, and can watch employees petting the stuffed animals. Indeed, a presentation should be consistent with what's for sale. The discount king of Kalamazoo doesn't want fancy displays (see "Dramatic Arts 101," next page). Still, he has to do something.

Says Harris: "There are a lot of stores out there. Yours needs to be different, memorable.'

And F.A.O. is. The model followed by Harris -- who had been managing the business with partial equity before he and a partner, Peter Morse, completed the acquisition two and a half years ago -- is a real-life play.

"I saw a murder mystery called Tamara a few years ago in Los Angeles," Harris explains. "In this play, the audience follows the characters from room to room. And I thought it would be wonderful if we could get that sense of involvement. That's why we have salespeople wandering around in costumes, and merchandise you can touch. We want this to be a fun, theatrical experience. In retailing, theater is anything that moves the customers from their own world into the world in which they are buying.

"We're selling merchandise that's high quality and unique -- but most of all, we're selling fun. And that's what the store should be.'

It's a message you can't help getting even before you go inside. On a recent visit to the New York store, the sidewalk display windows were done up to suggest an African veld and filled with stuffed Babars, the elephant that stars in a series of children books. "From the street, we want people to go 'wow.' All this is living theater. That's why we have a man dressed up as a toy soldier [out of The Nutcracker Suite] greet you at the door. It is all living fantasy.'

The fantasy continues inside. The first thing you see is a 28-foot-high structure that is a cross between a cuckoo clock and what could be Rube Goldberg's favorite contraption. On it are stuffed animals, fantasy creatures, and a train whirring around in circles. The clock lights up. It sings and has hands that move both clockwise and counterclockwise simultaneously.

"It's important to leave people with a memorable image of your store. At Disneyland, it's Cinderella's castle. For us, it's the clock," says Harris. "We live in a world of differentiation. The clock is our hook. You want people to remember you, so they'll come back.'

OK, but the clock cost Harris well into six figures, and that is a lot of money to spend for a mnemonic. Luckily, marketing as theater doesn't have to cost that much.

For example, if you are selling experientially -- that is, "in a way that is interactive, so that people can hear the merchandise, see it, touch it' -- you want to make sure each department has the proper feel. F.A.O.'s book section looks like a library. While there is some real wood paneling, the fire doors and walls are painted to look like wood.

Paint is cheap, but you can be theatrical for even less. Consider the simple matter of selling the things every store must offer. Most toy stores carry stuffed animals, and F.A.O. is no exception. However, instead of putting the stuffed dinosaurs in one place (with the rest of the stuffed animals), dinosaur puzzles in another, and the dinosaur board games in a third, everything having to do with the overgrown lizards is in one place, in a shop within a shop known as Animals of Extinction.

"Part of the message we want to send is that we have more of things than anyone else," says Harris. "And this is one way to do it.'

It doesn't cost extra, either. Another way to make a dramatic statement for free is to have someone else do it for you. The display for the small plastic building blocks called Lego features three life-size astronauts in front of what looks like a NASA control board. Everything was made out of Lego blocks, and "the company was happy to do it for us to show off its product and what you can do with it.'

All this is intriguing, but there is a danger. What if you make your store so interesting that you become a tourist attraction -- as indeed F.A.O. is -- and folks come to visit but not to buy?

No problem, says Harris. "People don't have to buy the first two or three times, and they don't have to buy on every trip. We take a longer-term approach." The result? People know what F.A.O. is and where to find it. And, thanks to the image that Harris has created, they will think of his store when they need to buy a toy.

Peter Harris concedes that not everyone can afford to wait until a customer comes back a fourth time, but he says his basic point about the need to be theatrical remains valid.

"You have to be different. Your customers have to remember who you are and what you stand for. And you need to make shopping fun.'

Certainly that family from Cleveland, which had come in just "to look," was having a good time. And the kids left carrying oversize water guns. Price, $12 each.


How to be theatrical even if you don't sell toys

True, presenting toys in dramatic fashion isn't too tough. After all, you have an enthusiastic, built-in audience. Children will say "oh wow" no matter what you do.

But what can you do if you aren't selling oversize stuffed animals, $14,500 sports cars, or high-tech computer games that go whirr, bzz, and splat?

Quite a lot, says F.A.O. Schwarz's Peter L. Harris. For example:

* Appeal to the senses. Let people touch or taste your product. Use sound. Selling dairy products? Why not a singing cow? Harris is not above using gimmicks. You'll hear train noises while you're looking at his locomotives. And the huge clock in the front of F.A.O. does everything but tap-dance.

* Make sure your displays look their part. If you're selling strawberries, says Harris, they should be stacked on wooden crates, not on black-and-silver high-tech counters. "Banana Republic is a perfect example. You can picture yourself crawling through Africa when you go through one of their stores." But you've got to be careful. "If you're an outlet store, the worst thing you can do is a display that reeks of expense.'

* Make sure your staff looks their part. "Grocers should look like grocers. When you hire employees, it should be as if you're casting a play. F.A.O. wants people who look comfortable playing with toys on their hands and knees.'

* Remember, not every Broadway show leaves them humming. "Don't make the assumption that theater has to be flamboyant. If you are a discount supermarket, and you get your customers to bag their own groceries, that's theater, too. It reinforces the message about your low prices, and it gets customers involved.'