It was November 1993: Alternative rock was dominating the airwaves with Nirvana’s In Utero, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, The Breeders’ Last Splash, and Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, among the multitude of albums released that year that we would eventually hail as classics. But genres — and listener tastes — were all over the place. While Pearl Jam was a month into the success of its second album, Vs., Meat Loaf was riding high with Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell, and by the end of November, both Snoop Doggy Dogg and Wu-Tang Clan had released critically acclaimed debut albums.
Amid all of these iconic releases, at Trumbull Mall, the oldest enclosed shopping center in Connecticut, Trans World Entertainment Corp. celebrated its 20th anniversary by opening the gates to its newest retail concept: For Your Entertainment (FYE).
Trans World began as a wholesaler in 1972 and formally became a retailer in 1973 when founder and CEO Bob Higgins opened his first Record Town store in Albany, New York. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, the company absorbed dozens of national and regional nameplates — including Camelot Music, The Wall, Coconuts, Disc Jockey, and Wherehouse Entertainment — all while building new concepts of its own. In under a decade, the FYE brand took center stage and Trans World rebranded most of its stores under the abbreviated name.
When Higgins died in 2017, Billboard called him “the industry’s consolidator,” and it was one of his biggest acquisitions — a 2006 deal for Musicland Group, including Sam Goody and Suncoast — that came just as the music industry was collapsing and the future of physical media faced a rapid decline.
FROM POP CHARTS TO POP CULTURE
According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), sales of physical CDs peaked in 2000 at $13.2 billion. Following a dip for a few years, CDs spiked again in 2004 before falling off a cliff — along with all recorded media.
FYE managed to outlive Tower Records, the Virgin Megastore, and other entertainment retail giants, but its own footprint — more than 1,000 stores at its peak — was shrinking each year. There’s a saying in business that fit the uncertain future of FYE: Evolve or die.
FYE’s Senior Vice President of Entertainment Merchandising and Marketing Jodie Evans witnessed the evolution first hand. Evans started with the company as a music buyer more than 20 years ago and says that FYE’s mission involves catering to many interests.
“We want to provide our customers with the ultimate pop culture entertainment experience,’’ Evans says. “An entire family should be able to shop our store and find something they love.”
As the selection of music and movies scaled back, FYE devoted increased square footage to toys, collectibles, apparel — and even food items — that are heavy on licensing and firmly rooted in pop culture fandoms for kids and adults. In doing so, FYE developed a network of collaborators that are nimble and able to strike when a new property trends.
“Speed to market has been one of our greatest challenges, especially in the last two years,” Evans explains. “We have great partners who have worked with us to fast-track approvals, but even so, we’ve run into the same supply chain issues everyone has experienced.”
One big property that could’ve seen licensed merch hit the market in record time, but was ultimately stalled thanks to the global supply chain saga of 2021, was Squid Game.
“We presented a great concept to Netflix and they moved very quickly to get it approved, but we were met with delays on the manufacturing side at every turn,” Evans says. “Unfortunately, we were not able to get product on the floor for Christmas, but when we launched our Squid Game Dalgona Lollipops in February, we still saw strong sell-through.”
FYE’s eagerness and reputation for newness and innovation does not go unnoticed within the pop culture industry. Over the past few years, Uncanny Brands has worked with FYE to develop a wide range of exclusive products, specifically pop culture-inspired small appliances. During the holiday season, Uncanny launched a My Hero Academia Waffle Maker with FYE and a new collection of items inspired by NBC’s The Office recently hit stores.
“We love FYE because they have an amazing pulse on what is trending in pop culture,” says Uncanny Brands President Matthew Hoffman. “They have a symbiotic relationship with their customers — consumers at the cutting-edge of new trends and properties who know FYE moves quickly to create cool new products for the hot trends.”
Evans says that the company is also beginning to focus on some evergreen licenses in order to create unique marketing events — and collaboration is key.
According to Hoffman, sometimes the property drives the product, but brainstorming sessions between teams can result in new combinations of licenses and products that weren’t previously on the table. “We were discussing our trends for slow cookers when the FYE team brought up the fun prospect of pairing that with Kevin’s chili from The Office,” he says. “Same with our Dunder Mifflin mugs and coffee makers.”
NEW OWNER, NEW OPPORTUNITIES
More than two years ago, Trans World found itself in a precarious financial situation. By December 2019, the company — which was placing increased emphasis on non-FYE-related digital businesses — questioned whether it could keep the retail operation going. Then, in January 2020, fortunes changed as Trans World sold FYE to a subsidiary of Canada’s Sunrise Records and Entertainment Ltd., led by Doug Putman, owner of toy and game distributor Everest Toys.
Since that time, Putman has also acquired Alex Global Products and Toys “R” Us Canada, and the synergies are beginning to pay off.
“Doug’s relationships and new acquisitions have given us the opportunity to offer a wider variety of products in FYE,” Evans says. “We have expanded some of our product lines and are offering new items like paint-by-number and cross-stitch kits that we’ve developed with Alex Global Products.”
BUILDING A BIG FUTURE
Before the pandemic changed the world, FYE was making its presence known beyond the mall. The company set up shop with booths at live conventions and fan events, including Chicago’s C2E2 in 2020. As the con circuit started ramping up again last fall, FYE was back in attendance.
“We will continue to support live events in the future as long as we are able to keep our fans and our team working at the event safe,” Evans says. “We were on-site for New York Comic Con (NYCC) in October and I thought ReedPop did an excellent job of managing that event and ensuring every fan had a great experience. We continue to connect with our fans through social engagement, our online store, fye.com, and, of course, through our physical stores; I don’t think that ever really changed other than stores having to temporarily close [due to the pandemic] in 2020.”
Looking ahead, fans can expect a wide array of new products to hit FYE throughout the year. The company’s consumables line — which has spawned products such as Garbage Pail Kids candy bars and Masters of the Universe (MOTU) cereals and hot sauces — is expanding.
New programs on the horizon include an exclusive Care Bears 40th anniversary line; Jurassic World and MOTU craft kits; Godzilla collectibles; a Hamsta World collaboration with Happy Ink; and Shrek and Hatsune Miku x Pusheen products.
“We look for licenses that have longevity and strong brand recognition,” Evans says. “It definitely helps that we have so many fans of so many different properties here, too; we like to have a strong list of product concepts [to develop] for each one.”
With a product mix that truly encompasses a little bit of everything and ownership with strong ties to entertainment, toys, and collectibles, FYE is poised to continue its evolution to serve enthusiasts of many fandoms for years to come.
This article was originally published in Issue No. 13 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!