As Disney's biggest shareholder, the late Steve Jobs encouraged the company to think big by polishing its brand with interactive technology. The result: an energetic retail reboot that is paying off

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MINNEAPOLIS —

The new Disney Store at the Mall of America may share its kid clientele with nearby Legoland and Nickelodeon Universe. But the retailer shares its heart with an outlet just several feet away: the Apple store.

With its seamless marriage of technology and brand, Disney’s new concept stores have taken a page or two from Apple’s vaunted retail playbook. Which makes sense, since Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs was the largest shareholder in the Walt Disney Co. and served on its board.

“Steve provided us with inspiration and support,” said James Fielding, the president of Disney Stores Worldwide. “He encouraged us to think big.”

At 5,000 square feet, the Disney Store at the Bloomington, Minn., mall is actually smaller than its original space on the mall’s second floor. Disney officials said they wanted a more visible location, and the store’s proximity to Legoland and Nickelodeon Universe was a definite plus.

Disney officials said the old stores lacked excitement and energy, especially for a company that prides itself on creativity and wonder. The concept stores “should not just be another place to buy Disney stuff but rather a physical manifestation of what Disney creates,” Fielding said.

The store, which opened in October and is one of 50 such concept stores across the country, tries to make every inch count. Upon entering, shoppers will immediately see the large displays of “Cars 2” and of Marvel Universe, a comic-book franchise Disney recently acquired that includes Spider-Man, Hulk and Captain America.

To the left is the Princess Neighborhood, which groups together all of Disney’s princess characters, such as Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Further into the store is the Disney Store Theater, which hosts screenings of Disney movies and events such as character-drawing workshops and trivia competitions.

Of course, you can buy Disney products at any major retailer, including Target and Toys R Us, but Disney is trying to add something extra by using the entire floor space to celebrate the brand, said Robert Passikoff, president of New York consumer-research firm Brand Keys.

“The brand brings something to the toy,” Passikoff said.

Not the other way around — kind of like an Apple store.

A concept store allows retailers to earn higher profit margins because they use experience, not price cuts, to lure customers, Passikoff said.

Disney’s store reboot goes back to 2008. At the time, the global economy began to falter and Disney needed a way to “stimulate guest interest,” Fielding said. “There’s not a Disney theme park in every state,” he said.

The company decided to retake control of its stores, which it had leased to Children’s Place in 2004, and dedicate a retail division within Disney Consumer Products.

Jobs, who became Disney’s largest investor when Disney purchased Pixar Studios in 2006, urged the company to develop the new stores carefully. In other words, don’t rush.

In fiscal 2011, Disney spent about $115 million on retail — up from $97 million in 2010 and $46 million in 2009, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. By 2016, the company hopes all of its 360 stores will be concept stores.

The stores’ use of technology to promote the brand also bears Jobs’ fingerprints. For example, when a shopper waves a special RFID tag in front of a “Magic Mirror” in the Princess Neighborhood, Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” or Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” suddenly appear.

Through a few taps on an iPhone, store staff can summon an image of Buzz Lightyear, star of “Toy Story,” to fly around the store.

If lines get too long, staff can check out customers on mobile devices.

Some stores also carry multitouch kiosks that allow shoppers to book Disney cruises and order merchandise with home shipping.

Disney does not disclose financial data for its stores. Fielding says the concept stores have generated double-digit increases in traffic and a 25 percent jump in customer “dwell time.”

For fiscal 2011, Disney said revenue from its Consumer Products segment grew 14 percent to $3 billion and operating income grew 21 percent to $816 million, thanks in part to “an improvement at the Disney Store North America driven by higher comparable store sales.”

Successful film franchises like “Cars” and “Toy Story” have certainly helped the cause. Company executives have said they expected “Toy Story 3” alone to generate $325 million for its Disney Stores.

While Fielding credits Apple Stores for helping to inspire the new concept stores, he also notes that Disney pioneered the concept of “retail-tainment” when the first Disney Store opened in 1987.

“Apple stores revolutionized retail,” he said. “But it’s not like we were the new kids on this block. We wanted to get back to our heritage.”