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Inside Warner Bros’ spellbinding retail experience Harry Potter New York

Harry Potter New York, in the city’s Flatiron District, features a larger-than-life griffin statue

Harry Potter New York, the new flagship store created by Warner Bros, brings together the magic of interactive virtual reality (VR), state-of-the-art shopping experiences and a Butterbeer bar under one roof. As part of our Experiential Marketing Deep Dive, The Drum takes a peek inside the otherworldly activation with Karl Durrant, vice president and general manager, Warner Bros Retail Experiences.

Just steps away from New York City’s iconic Madison Square Park, city-goers can step inside the doors of 935 Broadway. Here Warner Bros has erected the new 21,000-plus square foot Harry Potter flagship store. Complete with a wand shop, a Butterbeer bar, a publishing area adorned with floating books and a handful of immersive experiences splayed across 15 decked-out rooms, the store is a candyland for Potterheads.

There are photo ops for the Instagram generation, including a Hagrid height chart where fans can measure up against the giant, as well as a classic red phone booth. In the Dark Arts section of the sprawling space, Nagini the snake slithers down from the ceiling to speak parseltongue to passersby. And of course, there is the Wand Shop.

In the Wand Shop, consumers can peruse and shop more than 50 wands and engage with an interactive wand table where they can learn about the histories of unique wands by holding them and activating a magical display. Visitors are even invited to ‘duel’ with one another using the wands of their choosing.

At the Butterbeer Bar, fans can order the butterscotch-infused soft drink by the bottle or on draft – or opt for a scoop of Butterbeer ice cream. The bar itself seeks to transport visitors to the magical world of Harry Potter with ‘floating’ bottles that rise from the floorboards to the ceiling. With a network of copper pipes overhead, fans are meant to feel as if they’re in the belly of a Butterbeer brewery.

All of these elements create a retail experience that speak to consumers’ growing demands for experience-infused shopping, says Warner Bros’s vice president and general manager of retail experiences Karl Durrant. “There is no doubt that consumer behavior has changed. Digital retail was becoming popular even before the pandemic hit. It’s more important than ever to give consumers a reason to visit a store and to make it an event.”

And to bring the immersive feeling to another level, Warner Bros, in partnership with Dreamscape Immersive, developed two unique VR experiences that bring visitors into the action. In ‘Chaos at Hogwarts’, users join Dobby in an adventure around Hogwarts to immobilize and collect pixies that the house elf accidentally released. The second VR experience, ‘Wizards Take Flight’, invites users to zoom around the skies above London via broomstick, warding off evil Death Eaters alongside Hagrid.

The mechanics behind the magic: creating the ultimate retail experience

Bringing the dynamic Harry Potter New York attraction to life was no simple feat. The development phase alone took close to a year and a half, and involved a number of creative partners.

London-based experience and design agency Household was charged with creative concepting and execution. The team designed the store’s graphics, which Durrant says required “combining iconic film images and utilizing the font to capture the look and feel from the Harry Potter fan club app” to connect the New York store with various Harry Potter digital experiences. Household also spearheaded the store layout planning efforts and helped bring the interior to life – down to the minute details, such as the wand-inspired stairway railings.

Meanwhile, Dreamscape Immersive developed the VR experiences, while UK-based prop company Codsteaks sourced and built hundreds of props and decor items to be placed within the store. Among the most notable is the larger-than-life griffin sculpture – molded from the film’s original prop – that rotates upon the staircase. Durrant says that the griffin is one of his favorite elements of Harry Potter New York.

To help build the Butterbeer Bar, Warner Bros enlisted MinaLima, a duo of graphic designers who worked on both the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts film series. The team developed an exclusive label for the souvenir bottles sold in the bar.

Juggling the many tasks and teams required to bring the entire experience to life was challenging enough for the Warner Bros team – and then came a global pandemic. “Construction on the store was delayed, the delivery of goods became an issue as supply chains were interrupted and I wasn’t able to travel to New York until much later than I would have liked,” says Durrant. “We worked on a tighter schedule to recruit and train staff... and the list goes on.”

With operations stalling, the team decided to push back the original launch date. However, many initiatives were able to remain relatively on-schedule. Codsteaks, for example, transformed home garages and sheds into workshops and the production process for the store’s many props remained on-schedule.

Supernatural settings

Although the team faced a slew of unexpected hurdles brought on by the pandemic, the hard work ultimately paid off, according to Durrant. “The reaction from fans has been incredible – we couldn’t be more pleased.”

In particular, Warner Bros felt that New York – and the city’s Flatiron District in particular – served as the perfect backdrop for the experience. “There is no doubt that New York is a fantastic home for a store of this kind,” Durrant says. “The city has a huge Harry Potter fan base and a wonderful enthusiasm to embrace new ideas. We were also lucky to secure such a great building in the Flatiron District; it suits the brand perfectly. It’s hard to think of another store that delivers this level of theming and attention to detail. The combination of the design, interaction and collection of [products] makes it stand out on the high street.”

Since opening its doors in June, the store has welcomed some 425,000 visitors.

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