Bugs Bunny comes to town: What's up, doc? It's Britain's first Warner Bros store, reports Lisa Vaughan

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The Independent Online
COME the autumn, the girl who has everything will finally be able to add a pounds 1,200 sequinned matador-style jacket emblazoned with Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote to her wardrobe.

For Bugs, the whirling Tasmanian Devil, scheming Sylvester the Cat and his foil Tweety Pie and Porky the Pig, not to mention Batman, will be making their debut in selected British shopping centres in September when Warner Bros, the giant American corporation, opens the first of a new chain of speciality shops.

Called Studio Stores, they will sell paraphernalia decorated with Warner's animated and screen heroes.

It has been a winning formula for Warner in America, but the group has lagged behind its competitor Walt Disney when it comes to tapping the overseas market.

Stuart Soloway, managing director for Warner's European retail operations, said: 'Warner Bros and its characters have tremendous brand recognition, and exploiting them is an excellent commercial opportunity.'

The first store in Britain will open on 9 September at the Arndale Centre in Manchester and a big fanfare, complete with fireworks, is planned.

Arndale's owners are spending several million pounds refurbishing the centre to coincide with Warner's opening date.

'We're delighted to have them opening up here,' said Jackie Prosser, marketing manager for the centre's owner, P&O Shopping Centres. 'It's going to boost the image of the centre . . . and from a marketing angle they have such a lot to offer us.'

The refurbished decor will feature an elaborate square leading up to the store, with a huge domed ceiling for continuous Warner film and cartoon projections. A big fountain featuring a giant Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other characters frolicking on the edge will surprise passers-by with the occasional water show.

Giant Warner characters will even deck out one of the centre's main entrances.

Mr Soloway said that Warner wanted to grab the attention of customers walking through the centre with dramatic displays. Most shopping centres in Britain are accurately described as functional and dull, and they hope to help break the mould.

'We want customers to say 'Wow]' and we want them to chuckle,' he added.

The stores are designed to look like a Hollywood studio back lot. Each has a children's section with soft toys and games, a clothing department, a kitchenware section and a gallery of animation art - all drawing on Warner's characters, from Tweety rhinestone watches to Sylvester golf club covers.

The company, owned by Time Warner, also intends to include 'interactive' displays such as a Marvin the Martian rocket, an exploding Batmobile and a touch-screen computer painting system. The idea is to keep customers and their children in the shop as long as possible.

The company is importing some of its US managers in an effort to infect British employees with an American approach to service.

Warner's research found that all the in-store fun and games were effective. Customers spent roughly twice as much time in Warner stores as in other retail outlets.

Disney stores operate on a similar approach, with huge video screens playing animated films and other types of in-store entertainment.

Yet the two companies insist, publicly at least, that their cartoon personalities appeal to completely different types of people so they do not compete for customers. Mr Soloway said 70 per cent of Warner's sales were adult merchandise and the stores were not just for children.

The theory is that Warner characters, from Foghorn Leghorn the rooster, Pepe le Pew the skunk and Yosemite Sam the cowboy to DC Comics heroes such as Superman, are shrewd, crafty, rebellious and idiosyncratic.

Disney characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, on the other hand, are said to be straightforward, either good or evil, encouraging children to identify with them on an emotional level and - supposedly - appealing primarily to the 12 and unders.

Warner is scarcely likely to threaten Disney's dominance in the movie memorabilia market. From its start in 1987, Disney has opened 200 outlets in the US, Canada, Britain, Europe and Japan and the chain is still growing.

The regular release of animated box office blockbusters such as Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Book and Aladdin give Disney fresh characters and material to draw on.

Christos Garkinos, Disney's senior marketing manager in Europe, said: 'We honestly think there is room in this market place for more than one player . . . Warner's merchandise is much more adult. In the US where we and Warner are both in the same mall, our business has kept growing.'

Warner aims to have opened a total of 50 stores by the end of this year, including five in the UK. After Manchester, it plans an outlet at Lakeside Thurrock centre on the M25, another in Bentalls at Kingston upon Thames and one in the West End of London. Birmingham, Glasgow and later Continental Europe and Japan are also possibilities.

Neither company will reveal how profitable the studio stores are. Disney says only that its sales are three times the average of a speciality retailer on a square-foot basis.

Mr Soloway, of Warner Bros, said: 'The fact that two years after the start-up it will have expanded to 50 stores and is moving internationally means that it is seen by Warner Bros as a very exciting division.'

(Photograph omitted)