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Schwarz, Frederick August Otto - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Frederick August Otto Schwarz

toy store business stores

(1836-1911)
F.A.O. Schwarz

Overview

It could be said that Frederick A.O. Schwarz, founder of the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store, lived the immigrant fairy tale that most 19th-century newcomers dreamt of when they came to the United States. An entrepreneur who started working at age 14 in his homeland, Schwarz became hugely successful in his adopted country, establishing what would become America’s most famous toy store. The F.A.O. Schwarz name is now instantly recognizable to consumers, who have come to see the chain as a mecca for toy shopping. F.A.O. Schwarz, which specializes in distinctive products attracts both shoppers as well as collectors. The “ultimate toy store,” as the retail outlet has come to be known, has 13 branches throughout the United States. Its flagship stores are located in New York City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Orlando, Florida. The chain has also installed over 20 “mall-flagship” stores across the country. In all, F.A.O. Schwarz had 38 locations by 1998.

Personal Life

Frederick August Otto Schwarz was born in Herford, Westphalia, Germany, on October 18, 1836. He was the son of Frederick and Frederica (Rothe) Schwarz. His father was a jeweler who enjoyed a reputation as an expert goldsmith and silversmith.

As a boy, Schwarz was educated in a Westphalia school. For him, higher education meant active involvement in the business world at a young age. When he turned 14, he secured an apprenticeship with one of the city’s leading merchants. He remained apprenticed to the merchant for four years. From this experience he received a broad business training that would benefit him when he eventually moved to the United States.

Schwarz was just 20 years old when he embarked from his homeland to America in 1856. He made the sea voyage in a sailing vessel, a trip which lasted over two months. Once in America, he located himself in Baltimore, Maryland. His two older brothers had already settled in that city and had become successful importers of toys and fancy goods.

Schwarz married Caroline, on March 12, 1862, in New York City. They had six children, three sons and three daughters. Throughout his life, he traveled to Europe, which was then the most important toy-producing region, each year in order to do business. He died on May 17, 1911 in New York City.

Career Details

Schwarz graduated to the next step in his personal education when his brothers took him on as an employee with the intentions of making him a partner. He worked for the brothers, also as an importer, for six years before they admitted him into a partnership in 1862.

Eight years later, in 1870, Schwarz finally went into business for himself. He relocated to New York City and, using his own money, he opened the Schwarz toy bazaar. Schwarz was aided in this enterprise by his experience working for his brothers. His brothers, who had contacts with the best toy sources in Europe, continued to help him and his business prospered. The store was located at 765 Broadway, where Schwarz remained for nine years. That location allowed the business to continue to grow, as it was in the center of one of the city’s most fashionable shopping districts. The first F.A.O. Schwarz catalog was published in 1876. The catalog would become one of the store’s merchandising staples.

Schwarz then moved the business to 42 East 14th Street. In this location, he became the largest toy dealer in the world. He moved the business once again, in 1897, to 39 and 41 West 23rd Street, where his toy store occupied an entire seven-floor building and sat atop a basement that stretched an entire city block.

New competition emerged when New York department stores began selling toys. In 1875 Macy opened the first toy section of a department store, and in the mid-1880s both Ward’s and Sears and Roebuck began featuring dolls in their catalogs. None of these efforts seemed to hurt Schwarz, however. By 1908, Schwarz offered 16,000 items in his giant store.

F.A.O. Schwarz has been noted not only for the quality and uniqueness of the store’s merchandise, but for the way in which the merchandise has been promoted. The advertising success of the company began with Schwarz himself when the company introduced its first catalog in 1876. Legend has it that in 1875 Schwarz used the first live dressed-up Santa Claus to ever be used to promote seasonal sales.

Schwarz was involved in other business adventures during his lifetime. He was one of the founders of the Astor Place Bank and the Fourteenth Street Bank, both located in New York City. He became director of both institutions. He would later serve on the advisory board of the Astor Place Bank.

The company continued to thrive after Schwarz’s death in 1911. By the 1980s, though, the company suffered a period of stagnation and faced competition from chain stores such as Toys ‘R’ Us. F.A.O. Schwarz CEO and president Peter Harris returned to the old Schwarz philosophy of magic displays and special merchandise. In an effort to revive the entertaining environment that the store had been known for, Harris installed 100 thematic boutiques throughout the New York store. Branch stores also received new looks in an attempt to restore the enchantment customers once experienced in a Schwarz store. The stores also returned to emphasizing specialty toys, producing a collectibles catalog along with the regular catalog. Today, many visit the F.A.O. Schwarz stores to view and interact with the stores’ displays, including the giant pinball track and xylophone bridge at the Chicago location. As did the original store, today’s stores sell many exclusive products, maintaining a toy hotline that customers can call to gain assistance in finding older or more unusual toys. The mail-order service that has always been a part of the F.A.O. Schwarz tradition continues today through catalogs and through online shopping possibilities available through the company’s web site.

Social and Economic Impact

F.A.O. Schwarz, a privately held company that does not partner with any outside organizations, has managed to endure for more than a century. This could be attributed to both respect for tradition, hearkening back to Schwarz’ own approach, and a willingness to look ahead. Recent management has sought to keep one eye directed at the past and one toward the future, wide open to accept technological advancement and the opportunity it presents. Today, F.A.O. Schwarz is owned by KBB, a large Dutch retail group.

For much of its existence, the store that Frederick Otto August Schwarz built has enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest toy dealers in the world and as the top toy seller in America. Distinctive product and store design, attention to service, exclusive merchandise and an interactive display approach all combined to elevate F.A.O. Schwarz above the competition in both the hearts and minds of customers, whether they were an average consumer or a toy connoisseur. The store has occupied a unique niche since it opened, operating with a flamboyant flair that makes the stores as much tourist attractions as retail outlets.

Chronology: Frederick August Otto Schwarz

1836: Born.

1850: Began business apprenticeship.

1856: Immigrated to America.

1862: Became partner in his brothers’ Baltimore Business.

1870: Opened own toy store in New York City.

1876: Published first F.A.O. Schwarz catalog.

1879: Moved his store to East 14th Street and became largest toy dealer in the world.

1897: Moved store to 23rd Street.

1911: Died.

Heading into the next century, F.A.O. Schwarz still has a reputation of offering the newest and most unusual toys of highest quality. At least 30 percent of its inventory cannot be found in any other toy store. And much of the rest of its inventory is hard to find in other merchandise outlets. Following the lead of their founder, toy buyers for F.A.O. Schwarz still seek out the most unique toys made by toy makers around the world.

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