THE INTERVIEW: The boss of Disney Stores Worldwide
faces some unusual challenges

By Neil Craven for The Mail on Sunday

Drawing up a ten-year plan is a commitment many retailers would baulk at when the High Street changes beyond recognition in less time. And it seems even Jim Fielding, president of Disney Stores Worldwide, has yet to get to grips with the magnitude of his project to change the face of the brand's 350 worldwide stores.

The final one may not be converted until 2017 – almost a decade after the first brain-storming sessions.

'It's kind of daunting to think of it in that timescale. Maybe I need a stiffer drink,' says the 46-year-old American as he looks at the glass of mineral water in his hand.

Jim Fielding,president of Disney Stores Worldwide, at the new flagship shop in London¿s Oxford Street

Key role: Jim Fielding at Disney’s new flagship shop in London’s Oxford Street

Fielding arrived at Disney in May 2008 shortly before the company began its review of the stores.

Its flagship Oxford Street store in central London opened last week on a new site with a remodelled interior featuring high-tech and interactive areas. The number of these re-engineered stores will double to more than 50 by the end of the year.

The animated features and gadgets have already increased the amount of time that customers spend in stores by a fifth and boosted sales by more than ten per cent, even in the earliest trials.

The Oxford Street store has doubled in size and is expected to rank among the group's top five worldwide by sales. It is the biggest Disney store in Europe and includes a 28ft high fairytale castle facade and a team of ten entertainers to amuse the crowds.

Fielding says: 'We felt we had used those phrases like "retail theatre" before, so this time we really wanted to push ourselves to another level.'

Remote controls can trigger a projection of Peter Pan's Tinker Bell, who appears to fly across the walls, hiding and reappearing around the store. Meanwhile, 'imagination explosions' call on the actors, animations and loud music to inject excitement into the store at intervals chosen by its own entertainment manager.

The assault on the senses includes the nose. 'We realised we had touched on every sense apart from smell and we thought that was such an important aspect of any experience,' he says.

'You can imagine the conversation we had with major fragrance houses when we arrived at their offices, asking questions such as, ''What does pixie dust smell like?''.'

The review of the business continued despite the seismic changes to the world economy. Disney doesn't break out the financial performance of its stores, but accounts filed at Companies House showed that Britain's otherwise profitable 56 stores suffered alongside many others in the year that followed the banking crisis of 2008.

The most recent accounts, for the year to October 2010, show a strong recovery, reducing annual losses by 85 per cent to £1.7 million. Sales, which had stalled, also began to grow again – by 12 per cent to £112 million. 'As soon as we started the project the world economy got a bit rough,' says Fielding. 'But it didn't really stop us – it encouraged us to keep going.'

The prototype store was launched in California last June and others are opening for the first time in Belgium, Denmark and Ireland, taking the total to 11 countries. Disney plans to open its first store next year in mainland China.

The internet site is also growing fast with sales driven by offers of exclusive products – 90 per cent of the company's range can be bought only online or at the stores.

Fielding is a fan of the outdoors and enjoys pursuits such as golf, hiking and biking, but he also likes trips to the theatre, especially when he is in London, and recently saw Pygmalion at the Garrick Theatre.

Disney has been through massive changes over the past few years, last year adding Marvel Comics characters such as Thor and The X-Men to its stable. It is also easy to forget the emotional link many Americans, and indeed Europeans, feel towards a brand that they grew up with.

'I went to Disney World when it opened in 1971 and my mother is a huge Disney fan. This would be her dream job,' he says.