She’s not buying a doll, she’s adopting a space baby — and choosing the store over the internet

Nurse Tania, a.k.a. 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.
Nurse Tania, a.k.a. 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.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

As Claire Talerico videotaped her daughter Mia finalizing baby adoption paperwork with a nurse, two things stood out.

For one thing, Mia is just 10 years old. For another, Mia’s baby resembled a pink lacrosse ball with a tiny body attached.

For the record:

12:35 p.m. Dec. 17, 2018The article incorrectly states that Amparo Serrano designed the toys to give her nieces something that would inspire them to be more caring and nurturing. In fact, the artist designed the toys to inspire her daughters.

This wasn’t a real adoption. The fictional nurse was an employee of Distroller World, a boutique Mexican toy chain that is about to open its third U.S. store, in Glendale.


“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.”

Distroller World is an elaborate example of experience-based retail — 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.

A baby from the planet Neonatopia travels to the nursery at the Distroller World store in the Fashion Valley Mall via a pneumatic tube called the neonatal transportation system.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

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.

Once the adoption paperwork is finalized 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 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.”

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, 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 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.”

The lower floor of the Apple "town square" store in Chicago, which has a large, state-of-the-art screen for teaching, lots of light, open spaces and indoor trees.
(Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Distroller, which operates more than 70 locations primarily in Mexico and Latin America, most closely resembles U.S. retail chains Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. and the American Girl doll line, owned by Mattel, Silver said.

“You get to create something and then you get to take it home,” Silver said. “Build-A-Bear has tons of licensed characters. There are so many experiences for customers with the American Girl store.”

But experience retail can have drawbacks. It may involve more training — and possibly bigger paychecks — 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 fulfill 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.”

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.

— Jim Silver, CEO of toy review site TTPM

The first Distroller World opened in Mexico City in 2004 and was the brainchild of artist and entrepreneur Amparo “Amparin” Serrano.

The idea for the babies came from Serrano’s desire to give her nieces something that would inspire them to be more caring and nurturing, Fillis said. Serrano named the chain Distroller, pronounced “destroyer,” in honor of an earlier candy venture that Mexican health authorities refused to allow because the product was so sour and acidic it eliminated good flora from the small intestine.

For the toys’ introduction to the United States, “we started looking at how we could enhance the idea, how to communicate the story and make it commercially successful,” Fillis said. Serrano’s large-eyed creations also include dolls that pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Frida Kahlo, luchadores wrestlers and Day of the Dead skeletons, although those distinctly Mexican products have yet to make the trip north.

Distroller’s U.S. stores offer three types of so-called neonate babies — nerlies, zygoties and espongies — that cost $19.99 to $36.99.

The toy company has followed some fairly traditional retail paths, including developing a line of accessories big enough to make Barbie envious. Ongoing playtime is driven by a broad range of accessories, priced at $3.99 to $54.99, that include vitamins, food, outfits and incubators.

The new babies are also limited in number, and new ones are introduced a few times a year.

“There’s the collectability, which makes it aspirational,” Fillis said. “There are also some marketing tricks we’re applying and that’s what bridges the gap from the artist to the commercial experience.”

The company’s first U.S. stores, in San Diego and Houston, launched last year. The Distroller store at the Glendale Galleria is set to open in December.

Anyone planning to work at a Distroller store had better be prepared for more than the standard memorization 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 center 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.

"Itzyboop," a Neonate Baby in the nerlie stage, is weighed on a scale inside the Distroller World store in San Diego.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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.”

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