Nickelodeon is a household word in the homes with children today, and Dallas-based Viacom Retail Group plans to exploit the cable channel's popularity with its newest retail venture. Licensed products featuring the channel's programs and characters have long been a staple in retail stores, but the company recently enhanced its distribution by opening its own stores.

"We've developed the stores with a single goal in mind: to create an official Nickelodeon headquarters that serves as the only place kids can get the complete Nickelodeon experience," says Tom Haas, president of Viacom Retail Group. The stores offer the most extensive line of Nickelodeon products available and serve as a place where kids can experience all of Nickelodeon - from entering a sweepstakes to registering for the Big Help volunteer campaign.

The project began in early 1997 and came together with the opening of three locations last fall: Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.; Roosevelt Field in Long Island, N.Y.; and Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill.

With its own stores, the company could broaden its merchandise selection, Haas says. While the licensed-products industry was heavily weighted toward the most popular characters, such as Rugrats, other properties might not get similar exposure or even licensed, he explains. "We felt comfortable and even obligated to support those other properties."

In addition, Haas says, Viacom saw the stores as a creative laboratory where it can test new products. The advantage of complementing a television channel, he says, is that merchandise can always be new and fresh as programs change.

But the products are only part of the Nickelodeon stores. The store's design and interactive elements further enhance the experience. The stores feature tilted walls, purple ceilings, "slimed" cabinets, bright colors, bold patterns, and sights and sounds that reflect Nickelodeon's on-air personality. Several interactive components add to the 4,000 sq. ft. environment.

"Our goal was to create a comprehensive atmosphere devoted to kids," Haas says. "The store reflects the image and attitude of Nickelodeon."

Haas describes the company's target customers as Nickelodeon viewers ages 2 to 13, followed by parents or grandparents who are buying for the children. With those targets in mind, the company studies demographics closely, looking for population densities, number of children in the area and Nickelodeon's penetration in the market.

The company is primarily focusing on top-tier malls nationwide, Haas says. Other criteria are specialty-store sales per square foot in a given center as well as competitive sales. But, he adds, he sees the concept as having broad-based appeal, lending itself to multiple sites in a metropolitan area.

High visibility and traffic are the main considerations when determining the best spot within a center, Haas says, adding that Nickelodeon stores work best with co-tenants such as children's apparel retailers and toy stores as well as food court tenants.

Without elaborating, he says the company plans "very aggressive expansion over the next several years." He expects there will be at least a dozen new stores open this fall. "We are being very selective."