FAO Schwarz animates its spaces with vinyl flooring.

Only the most jaded kids forget their first visit to an FAO Schwarz store. The colors, sounds, animated figures and, of course, the products all captivate their imaginations. For parents, the word overstimulated may come to mind when describing their kids' condition after a short stay at any of the retailers' 42 - soon to be 44 - stores. And that's the way FAO Schwarz likes things.

"The overall goal of our stores is to be an interactively experiential environment," says Dik Glass, executive vice president of New York-based FAO Schwarz. "We break that into three components - animotronics, unique merchandise and a venue that is colorful, exciting and stimulating."

One architectural element FAO Schwarz has capitalized on to make a big design splash and animate its properties beyond what could be accomplished with just lighting, paint and wall treatments is the flooring. "In large retail spaces, the walls are usually covered with product, and you pay particular attention to focusing the customers' eye to those walls," says Mike Steveson, a principal with AAD, Scottsdale, Ariz., one of the architectural/interior design firms that has worked on several of FAO Schwarz properties, along with the regular design firm FAO taps for its store concepts, Newbold Associates, New York. "From a finish material standpoint, the flooring is what people see most of in any given space, and in order for their eye to get to the walls they have to scan the floor," he adds. It's one reason FAO Schwarz decided to make that scan an engaging one.

Low Maintenance, High Design FAO Schwarz has teamed up with Amtico International Inc., a manufacturer of pure vinyl flooring, to incorporate floors that contribute to the whimsical, sometimes eye-popping, atmosphere of its stores. One of the retailer's specialties is creating enticing merchandise displays - themed environments that envelop shoppers - tied to a specific product line, such as Barbie, Star Wars or Lego. Amtico, based in Coventry, England, with a showroom in New York and a studio in Atlanta, offers specifiers both durability and design flexibility.

"Flooring has to look good, function well and be durable enough to stand up to traffic and look good six months down the road," says Steveson. Acoustics is another issue. "In those large, cavernous spaces you stay away from the really hard surfaces like tiles or patterned concrete because you have problems controlling sound and you start getting clankiness and echoes. Resilient products have a better feel from an acoustic standpoint. It's also difficult to find flooring that's visually going to pull shoppers into a theme and still meet all the functional requirements," comments Steveson. That is why FAO Schwarz and its designers like the Amtico line, which is impervious to stains and denting, and also doesn't require sanding and sealing.

FAO typically uses two Amtico products. The standard product features tiles that replicate the look of other materials like wood, marble, granite and ceramic. Stratica, a durable high-performance material, is ideal for highly trafficked areas. In addition, Amtico creates some custom colors for FAO Schwarz.

As for Stratica, it is specified in high traffic areas like the entrance of the flagship FAO Schwarz store. This property is one of the top ten visited sites in New York City and often sees as many as 50,000 visitors traipse through its Fifth Avenue doors in a weekend. "The New York store takes an incredible amount of abuse relative to the front entrance," observes Glass.

Thus, it was important for FAO to have a low-maintenance, extremely durable floor covering in that spot. Stratica is made with Surlyn, a product manufactured by DuPont, and is used for golf ball covers, bowling pin coatings and glass lamination. Stratica was test-driven at several European airports, and can hold its own against all sorts of abuse - abrasions, dents, and chemicals. Moreover, it requires little maintenance and can simply be spray buffed or damp mopped for cleaning purposes, according to Richard Wilton, an Amtico regional manager based in the company's New York showroom.

Kindest Cut Another benefit Amtico brings to the table is its ability to custom cut any shape or design. "FAO's designers draw up a concept and we use a computer aided drafting and design (CADD) system to create a cutting program. Physically cutting each of those components would be an impracticality. Without such automation, their ideas would only be a dream," comments Wilton.

"FAO Schwarz is one of the most forward-thinking retail groups. It grabs a concept and maximizes its potential by using standard products to execute its ideas," says Wilton. For example at one of FAO Schwarz's boutiques at the flagship store devoted to Marvel Comics, the retailer created a wall of 25 video screens and installed a life-size Spiderman, as well as other Marvel memorabilia to create a small world of comics. The boutique is no longer on display, but when it was, the floor featured a metallic silver background and a series of Marvel-related graphics - thwip, aargh, and snikt - were cut out in bright blue, red, green, and yellow shades and embedded into the floor. When customers stepped on one of the graphics, it triggered a sensor in the ceiling that broadcast the sound of the word.

Marketing Might FAO Schwarz's approach to flooring gives the retailer and the toy manufacturers the ability to flex marketing muscle. For instance, custom-made tiles featuring the well-known FAO icons - the hobby horse, the tin man and a robot, for example - are scattered throughout floors in main circulation areas, and have the effect of drawing shoppers through the store and leading them to the various merchandise sections. In addition, in themed areas, manufacturers' logos can be incorporated into the design scheme. "It lets the toy manufacturer project its image and allows for brand identification in the floor immediately," says Wilton. "And in the non-vendor-specific areas, the retailer can project pure FAO icons throughout the store."

The Amtico product also offers flexibility in terms of tearing out one design and installing another. Since the products in the themed areas are vinyl tiles, existing theme tiles can be cut out and replaced with new ones fairly easily. "If we do a Nickelodeon theme, we get a tile made with the orange Nickelodeon logo and drop it in," says Glass. "We did it with Stuart Little, a Scrabble board, and with Barbie logos. Like any major retailer, you have to have one or two centers that are always changing and updating. If you don't, then you're basically telling people you're no longer interested in the business. We're constantly working on new themes," he says.