Bugs races Mickey on high street: Warner chases Disney's retail success

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The Independent Online
BUGS BUNNY is about to go head-to-head with Mickey Mouse. But the battle will be fought on the High Street, not on the silver screen.

On Wednesday, Warner Brothers, the producer of cartoon favourites such as Bugs Bunny, Tweety Pie and Sylvester, and Wile E Coyote, will open a flagship UK shop on Regent Street in London. It will be just yards from the Disney Store, Uncle Walt's own flagship, which opened further down Regent Street in 1990. And the biggest toyshop in the world, Hamleys, which reports interim figures tomorrow, is a stone's throw away from both.

Although Warner Brothers denies it is a head-on challenge, its move on to Disney's patch is deliberate. So far Warner has just nine stores in Britain; Disney has 24 and is still adding more. Warner did not open its first UK shop until September last year and would like to catch up. 'We think the UK has the potential for 20-25 stores within the next two or three years,' said Stuart Soloway, managing director of Warner's retail operation in Europe.

Warner also plans a march across Europe - it already has a store in Berlin. 'Time Warner (the parent) is a global company,' Mr Soloway said. 'We will try the concept in every country where we think the Warner characters are popular.'

Disney, however, is still way ahead. It has 308 stores worldwide (to Warner's 110) and a steady stream of new films on which to piggy-back its merchandise. Last year it was Aladdin. This year it is The Lion King, which premiered in London on Thursday and goes on nationwide release this week.

The two are multi-billion- dollar corporations. Turnover at Walt Disney last year was dollars 8.5bn ( pounds 5.5bn). Time Warner, still labouring under the costs of the 1989 mega-merger that created it, posted sales of dollars 14bn ( pounds 9bn).

Although Warner will not put a price on its investment in Britain, the stores are expensively fitted. The 28,000 sq ft Regent Street shop, covered by a wooden hoarding until late last week, will feature sandblast glass sculptures above its entrance, hardwood floors, marble features inside and an art gallery with black leather walls and chandeliers.

Two outsize video screens will play a combination of Warner's Looney Tunes cartoons over a shop floor designed to look like a film set.

The merchandise ranges from a pounds 2.50 key ring to a pounds 1,500 celluloid picture and is aimed mostly at an adult audience. As well as Bugs Bunny boxer shorts and bomber jackets, there are Wile E Coyote mugs, and 'I tawt I taw a Puddy Tat' Tweety Pie sport socks. There is also a pet range including a Daffy Duck dog bowl and a goldfish bowl with a plastic Sylvester cat wrapped around it.

'Our target market is different to Disney's,' Mr Soloway said. 'We aim at adults aged 20-45 and three quarters of our merchandise is sold to adults. It mirrors the appeal of our characters, which tends to be in the older age range.'

Mr Soloway denies that film merchandise shops are havens for people who browse rather than buy. 'We have a year's experience under our belt here and we don't find that to be the case.' Though Warner does not disclose its shops' financial performance, Mr Soloway insists they are profitable and that the stock is rotated to maintain customer interest. 'We run it like a fashion business, bringing in five different collections a year.'

Like Disney, Warner places great emphasis on staff training. Staff will be dressed in black polo shirts and black jeans and be thoroughly briefed on the Looney Tunes characters. The sober dress contrasts with the all-American image offered by the Disney store up the road. There staff are called 'cast members' and customers are called 'guests'. The uniform is a turquoise baseball cardigan embroidered with a big M for Mickey. Female 'cast members' also wear cutesy white training shoes and bobby socks.

Disney's strict code is outlined in its staff booklet, The Disney Store Look. This specifies no beards, moustaches, wigs or hairpieces. And for women it stipulates modest make-up and jewellery and a rule that 'bras must be worn at all times'.

The two corporations may have slightly different reasons for this retail expansion. For Disney, a key feature is to support the ailing Euro Disney theme park in Paris. The Disney Store in Regent Street, for example, has a Euro Disney ticket office, enabling customers to book their trip.

Warner Brothers also has theme parks, but only in America. It is more likely that having seen the Disney stores grow throughout the recession, Warner wants a piece of the action.