Nurse Tania, aka Danielle Hernandez, weighs and examines Susiking, one of the babies from the planet Neonatopia, at the Distroller World store in San Diego, as 4-year-old Sydney Stephens looks on. Image Credit: Supplied

Los Angeles: As Claire Talerico videotaped her daughter Mia finalising baby adoption paperwork with a nurse, two things stood out.

For one thing, Mia is just ten years old. For another, Mia’s baby resembled a pink lacrosse ball with a tiny body attached.

And there are more curious aspects to this transaction. This wasn’t a real adoption and the nurse who is completing the paperwork is a not a real nurse, she is fictional and an employee of Distroller World, a boutique Mexican toy chain that is about to open its third store in the United States.

“There are no other toys like them,” Mia said of the 12 Distroller babies she has adopted. “At home, we made them a nursery, then I built a little school for them. We even make up voices for them.”

Welcome to the world of ‘experience-based’ retail. Distroller World is an elaborate example of this trend — where shoppers get to do something rather than just buy something. It’s a style that merchants increasingly are trying out to recapture business lost to the internet.

At Distroller outlets, parents and children are swept up in the story of a planet called Neonatopia, whose 22 different types of babies need adopting.

"Itzyboop," a Neonate Baby in the nerlie stage, is weighed on a scale inside the Distroller World store in San Diego. Image Credit: Supplied

Once the adoption paperwork is finalised with an employee dressed for the part of Nurse Tania, children follow the arrival of their babies via a “spaceship” that travels around the store via a pneumatic tube.

“We create experiences,” said Daryn Fillis, chief executive of Distroller North America. The El Segundo-based company operates from offices that feature the bright, children’s-style furnishings of a preschool.

“We focus on the emotional bond between the child and the brand through a product,” Fillis said. “You can’t call these dolls. They’re babies. They aren’t for sale. You adopt them, so there’s an adoption fee. The language that we use helps tell that story.”

Standing up to online challenge

Experience retail is a promising concept to help bricks-and-mortar retail stores that each year lose a little more ground to online merchants, experts say.

Apple Inc. is considered a leader in the experience retail game. The tech company last year rolled out a “town square” store design with natural light, indoor trees, meeting spaces, “inspiration” programs and more product interaction.

Another example is the Nordstrom department store chain in the US, which is expanding its Nordstrom Local concept beyond the original Los Angeles store, offering manicures, styling, onsite alterations and curbside pickup of online orders.

In the void left by Toys “R” Us’ demise, mainstream US retailers such as Target and Walmart went into the all-important holiday shopping season with beefed-up toy departments that feature play areas and special events.

“If you are going to take a child to a store, you want to have an experience with them, something interactive, not just looking at products on shelves,” said Jim Silver, chief executive of toy review website TTPM. “That’s only possible in brick-and-mortar stores.”

But experience retail can have drawbacks. It may involve more training - and possibly bigger paycheques - for employees who must then act out the roles they play well enough for an enjoyable consumer experience.

Recruiting, training and retaining employees who can fulfil this kind of role-playing “within the razor-thin margins of retailing will be difficult,” said Denise Lee Yohn, a branding expert and author of Fusion: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies.

And it isn’t just one story that has to be mastered and presented; if the experience doesn’t evolve with new elements and events, it will quickly grow stale and lose its appeal, experts said.

“You have to constantly freshen things up,” Silver said. “It can’t be the same old, same old, or a child will go two or three times and get bored.”

150-page training manual for employees

Anyone planning to work at a Distroller store had better be prepared for more than the standard memorisation of toy specifications. Distroller employees are handed a 150-page training manual that they are expected to master.

“There’s a full brand induction because you’ve got to be able to tell the story,” Fillis said.

Each store contains an adoption centre and a medical clinic. “The training is challenging because children invent all sorts of things that are happening with their babies when they come back in for checkups,” Fillis said.

For her part, Serrano is hoping to match her Latin American success north of the border.

“I believe that children play the same, regardless of where they live. I’m hopeful Distroller will have great success everywhere we open,” she said.

There have been some bumps in the road. Brand expert Yohn, for example, warned that cultural differences might throw experiential brands a curve.

Distroller has already run into at least one of those, with parents who strongly oppose vaccines.

“We were cyberbullied on anti-vaccine day last year, which really hasn’t been an issue in Mexico,” Fillis said. “And we actually had to turn off our review feature on Facebook. We just shake it off. If a parent wants, they can say ‘no vaccinations,’ and we’ll respect that.”

There have been some unforeseen benefits for Distroller in the US as well. Traditionally, the chain’s sweet spot has been small, within an age range of 6 to 8. But the toys have begun attracting older children in the US, such as budding internet influencer Mia Talerico, whose primary YouTube page, Miatalerico101, has posts that have drawn as many as 91,500 views.

“It took eight hours for us to drive down to that store and back,” recalled Claire Talerico, of the Santa Barbara-to-San Diego round trip. “She still talks about it all of the time. It was absolutely worth the effort.”

For Loreanne Switzer, 36, and her daughter, Fiona, 5, the trek from the San Francisco Bay Area to the San Diego Distroller store and back took 16 hours.

Switzer said she was amazed at the staying power Distroller’s babies have in keeping her daughter’s interest.

“Every time they come out,” Switzer said, “she’s really excited to see what the new babies will be and which ones she might want to adopt.”

— Los Angeles Times