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Marketing Magical Moments

Disney: Belmont Shore resident oversees vast retail operation.

7/17/06
By Don Jergler, Staff writer, Long Beach Press-Telegram

Marianne Bitterbaum Sharpe, vice president of merchandise for Disneyland Resort, at Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean merchandise store. (Kevin Chang / Press Telegram)

ANAHEIM - It's a tale of how a little boy's broken heart led to a Pirate Princess bounty for a giant corporation, or how a swashbuckler is selling mouse ears.

There's a touch of fantasy in every Disney story. But even in "the happiest place on earth," business is still business.

Call him little "Timmy" or "Gregory," and imagine the young boy's face when his Disneyland trip went south after he and his mother's quest for a 50th anniversary gold mouse ears hat turned up nil.

The boy was upset, crying and he kept begging for "the Mickey magic ear hat," the mother wrote in a letter to park management.

Any Disney exec worth his or her weight should be able to make park snack favorite frozen lemonade out of such a sour scenario.

"If a kid thinks this hat is magical, how do we put that magic into the product?"

The rhetorical question came from Marianne Sharpe, vice president of merchandise and store operations for Disneyland Resort, as she cruised through the theme park on a recent hot day.

She stopped often to pick up trash and trade collector's pins when flagged down by visitors as she recalled the letter she'd read more than a year ago, and how it changed her way of thinking.

The 48-year-old Belmont Shore resident is in charge of more than 90 retail stores and some 2,000 employees at the park, Disneyland Hotel and Downtown Disney.

She also heads product creation for the resort. That means she spends much of her time and energy motivating a 150-person team to come up with new products that will satisfy the young and the old, the rich and the poor - the park sells tens of thousands of items from $2 to $5,000 each.

"I find my inspiration by listening to people," Sharpe said during a ride on the newly revamped Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

Picture Sharpe as: lively, but not overly enthusiastic; down to earth but well-spoken; professional without a hard edge. Sharpe's persona walks a straight line down Main Street U.S.A.

Glancing left and right at a long line of shops, she offers practiced answers to questions with just enough flavor so as not to make investors and top executives at a company like Disney uncomfortable.

Ask her about sales figures, her retail philosophy, product development or just about any hard business question, and she'll give you answers peppered with phrases like, "team work," "organization is key," and "communicating with the customers is important."

Ask her for her own thoughts on something, and you'll get a slice of Disney philosophy along with it.

However, even in a job dominated by products and bottom lines, Sharpe's strategy centers around people.

And to Sharpe, products are merely a reflection of the people buying them.

"I have a 10-year-old, so she's my focus group," she said, referring to her daughter Jessica.

When Sharpe came upon the mother's letter it was the impetus for the park's new "Pirate Princess" line, with a focus on a younger audience, particularly girls and women.

The boy's loss was the Disney consumer's gain, as Sharpe began to expand the product line with a "put the magic into the product" mentality. However, it's likely that problems such as the one faced by the boy in search of the hat will arise again. "`You ran out,' is the most common negative comment I get," Sharpe said, adding that it's a delicate balance between providing variety and volume of product for park visitors.

The Pirate Princess line includes pirate-themed hip-packs embroidered with "Dead men tell no tales," belts with skulls and crossbones, sweatshirts, and a pink cowboy hat with the Pirate Princess logo.

Stores at Disneyland are filled with numerous products related to the film. The top-selling item so far has been the Pirates mouse ears hat, with an earring in one mouse ear and a bandana over the head.

Sales of the hat have overtaken the

top-selling golden mouse ears hat, Sharpe said.

Selling the new line has been smooth sailing for Sharpe.

After a record-breaking opening week of $135 million for "The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," sales of pirate-themed products in Sharpe's Disney domain more than quadrupled, she said.

For the month following the release of the film, sales of movie-related paraphernalia typically peak, she said, adding "We've got at least three more weeks."

Pin trading

Outside the Pirates ride in Bourbon Street, Sharpe was cornered by Rich and Tamara Cusano, a Simi Valley couple who had their eyes on a Haunted Mansion Holiday pin Sharpe wore on a lanyard hanging around her neck.

"We have no kids this week, so we're being kids," said Rich Cusano, who is director of DVD audio for Camarillo-based Technicolor Inc.

He, wearing a black 50th anniversary baseball cap, and she, sporting a new pink Pirate Princess cowboy hat, were among the many guests who approached Sharpe on her walk through the park.

Most Disney employees carry lanyards around their necks with pins on them, and visitors are invited to approach workers and make a trade - pins are sold in many of the park's gift shops.

Pin trading has become one of the hottest trends at the park, and Sharpe said pins are now part of her retail focus because pin sales have "definitely doubled in the last couple of years."

"Collectability is a big driver of our merchandise," Sharpe said. "We do have a strong collectible business."

Sharpe said she's typically stopped about five times on her walks through the park to trade pins - she estimates that she stops about twice as often to pick up trash under a program in which all park executives partake in clean up.

Back in her Anaheim office adorned with prints, and dozens of Disney collectibles, Sharpe explained they represent a "tangible memory" for visitors that tie the "experience to merchandise." Sharpe can rattle off a list of details about each item.

The Team Disney Anaheim office is home to more than 1,000 employees.

Sharpe picked up the park's 50th anniversary golden mouse ears hat, a million of which were sold during the park's anniversary last year. It was one of the first changes to the traditional black mouse ears hat, she said.

In a nearby meeting room Sharpe showed off an array of princess and fairy-related products like "Beauty and the Beast," and "Tinker Bell."

Affixed on all four walls of the large room are wire racks, on which hangs nearly 500 products, Sharpe said.

Only two of the walls are now filled, and more products are being brought in.

The team will look at the existing products and try to come up with a new line of princess-related products to refresh the product line and to coincide with the release of the Tinkerbell DVD next year, she said.

"We'll be in a meeting and you'll be talking about something like the position of Goofy on a shirt," she said laughing. "There's no where else in the world you can do that." Don Jergler can be reached at don.jergler@presstelegram.com or (562) 499-1281.