Work hard, play hard
With its network of locally owned toy stores continuing to grow, Learning Express prepares for its biggest year yet
As a company known for its dedicated network of local storeowners, friendly atmosphere and impressive range of on-trend toys, Learning Express continues to see success. With the help of its brand-new website, exclusive range of Squishmallow plush designs, and strong network of trusted suppliers, the company celebrates 35 years of keeping its customers entertained, and steps confidently into the new year.
With its boredom-busting portfolio of workbooks, puzzles, activities and toys, Learning Express has become a beloved outlet for communities across the US. Over the last two years, the company has adapted its model, and invested in a new IT infrastructure, in order to overcome the challenges of a pandemic. As the company’s Director of Marketing, Lauren Derse, details: “The last few years have been a rollercoaster. At the beginning of the pandemic most of our stores had to close for a few months. Some of our locations were able to remain open with curbside pick-up or shipping only, however a lot of stores were fully closed, so sales were down dramatically. Traffic for our pick-up stores was trickling in, but it was nothing compared to what we are used to.
“We used the time to work on our new website, which was one of the greatest things to come out of the last few years. We changed how the website was structured; before, a customer could go online and place an order based on the shared inventory of all online store locations. Using the customer’s location, a store would then be selected, and they would ship the item. This system was difficult to maintain during the pandemic, and we found that customers wanted local solutions instead. Each of our stores now has its own website, based on its own inventory, so when a customer shops they are shopping in their local store for items that are locally available. That was a huge development for our stores; our teams on the shop floor absolutely loved it.
“We really wanted to create something that was needed by our stores and necessary in the existing climate, for the business as well as the customers. Our hard work definitely paid off, as we were able to turn the project around rapidly,” she adds.
As the new website increased store accessibility during the initial lockdown periods, it also streamlined Learning Express’ operations, and kept local customers in contact with local stores. As market trends became more prominent throughout 2021, Learning Express used its impressive new infrastructure in order to supply its customers with the most on-trend items, as Lauren explains: “After a challenging initial few months, two trends became unbelievably popular: Squishmallows and fidget toys. We have a really strong working relationship with Kelly Toys, and as a result the company was able to manufacture some Squishmallows for our stores and customers. We were then able to offer exclusive Squishmallows in our stores, which really drove a lot of traffic, both online and in-person.
“The other major trend was fidget toys; we have stocked fidget spinners for a few years now, but with this latest trend came demand for all kinds of fidget accessories, including Pop-Its, tubes and fidget rings. Because of how our business is structured, we were able to get the new products into our stores very quickly. This helped us to continue offering our customers a new and unique mix of toys.
“That’s really what I mean when I say it’s been like a rollercoaster. We’ve had the lows of 2020 and the initial pandemic, which were then met with good internal developments, a new website and leading the way in terms of toy trends. Overall, we’ve had the best year in the history of our company, so it just goes to show how important adaptability and resilience is.”
Alongside these company-wide successes, Learning Express was supported throughout the pandemic by its network of local storeowners, who worked hard to ensure customers were able to beat the lockdown blues with the best toys, activities and games. “All of our stores are locally operated, so each store owner had the freedom to do what their customers needed. Some were able to get private tours arranged in their stores, others did telephone and Zoom tours. I am head of marketing at Learning Express but I also own my own store in Bedford MA, and I was making local deliveries all over the town, because customers were uncomfortable coming to the store. Every store owner was able to adapt and offer their customers a shopping experience they were comfortable with,” enthuses Lauren.
As the company continues to grow, so does its community of storeowners, as Lauren reveals: “In 2020 and 2021, we opened up a number of brand-new stores, which is fantastic. We have seen lots of interest in terms of new franchisees, because as a brand we add a lot of value to each local store. On a qualitative basis, because of the relationship and history we have with our vendors, we are able to offer very good discounts to our storeowners. Every time they place an order, they are getting an incredible deal, which in itself is worth the royalty.
“In terms of the more qualitative aspects, Learning Express is a locally owned community toy store, and so most of the franchisees that are interested in the company are looking to be a part of their community, and have a flexible lifestyle that works with their schedule and family life. They are giving back to their local community, which is something you rarely get in a career.
“The other selling point for a lot of franchisees is the fact that Learning Express is truly a family toy store; the communication between all of our stores is remarkable, and some of our hottest products have been discovered by franchisees who have had success in their own store, communicated it with our buying team and stores, and then turned it into a huge trend. That’s how we made all the fidget toy discoveries, and another one of our storeowners started discussions with Kelly Toys about exclusive Squishmallows. People come to us for a sense of community, as well as the high levels of communication we maintain, and the strong relationships we all have with one another.”
Bolstered by its strong, adaptable model, hard-working team and incredible insight into the market, Learning Express prepares for an exciting 35th year. As Lauren concludes: “We think 2022 is going to be good. Our sales in January of this year have been higher than they ever have been, and because of the trends in 2021, we were able to acquire many new customers. Our goal now is to continuously communicate with them and encourage them to come back to the store.
“I know our home office team has never been more well positioned, and excited about our strategic projects getting us to the next level; our stores are coming out of their best year ever in 2021, and so we are excited to continue that momentum. We have all engines ready to go.”