When Sharon DiMinico started Learning Express in 1987, she never envisioned it would grow into the largest franchisor of specialty toy stores in the United States. But her emphasis on providing toys that encouraged creativity and learning, coupled with an expert sales staff and a hands-on atmosphere where kids could test out the products and their skills, proved a winning strategy. From one store to its current 150 locations, Learning Express has stayed true to DiMinico’s original concept. The company has thrived by differentiating itself from the big-box national chains that dominate the category and compete mainly on price. It has carved out its own niche, setting itself apart with unique toys not found at larger retailers and with services such as a birthday gift registry for kids, free gift-wrapping, free personalization and family events. Strong community roots, fostered by fundraising and other charitable programs, enhance its appeal with local shoppers. DiMinico remains at the helm of Learning Express. She spoke with Chain Store Age about the company and its plans for the future.
What was your retail experience prior to founding Learning Express?
Prior to Learning Express, I owned a ceramic tile, marble and granite installation business that was located in an upscale shopping center. It was a 5,000-sq.-ft. showroom, and it also featured a kitchen shop and bath shop.
How did you come up with the Learning Express concept?
I had two young children and became frustrated with the lack of quality toys and games available in my neighborhood. I thought there was a need in the market that had not been met, so I set out to create the kind of store I wished for as a mother.
When and where did the first store open?
In 1987, I chaired the board of directors at the Groton Community School in Massachusetts. I opened the first Learning Express store to raise revenue for the school without raising tuition. But the first company store openedin Needham, Mass., in 1988. The first franchised Learning Express store opened in 1990 in Andover, Mass.
How is Learning Express different from other toy stores? What is the customer experience like?
We greet our customers by name at Learning Express and pride ourselves on our product knowledge, which enables us to help customers choose the perfect toy by age, interest or occasion.
Our stores are clean, bright and organized by age for young children and then by interests: Arts & Crafts, Science, Construction, etc. The typical store is buzzing with activity — product demos, play dates and special events — and offers helpful customer services like free gift wrapping, free personalization and our Birthday Box program.
Why did you decide to franchise?
I believe successful retailers are the ones that respond to their local market. Franchising was the perfect way to blend a proven business model with the insight that individual owners can offer.
Are there any corporate-owned stores?
We currently do not have any corporately owned stores, but we have plans to open a flagship location in the near future. It will serve as the training site for all our new owners, and will allow us to test drive new products and marketing programs.
Is there a typical Learning Express franchisee?
Absolutely not! Our franchisees come to us from all walks of life — everyone from twin sisters in their thirties, one of whom was a commercial pilot, to retired grandfathers. But they all share one very important motivating characteristic: the entrepreneurial spirit.
What about real estate — what type of locations work best for Learning Express?
Most of our locations are destination stores in freestanding buildings in town centers, or inline at upscale, grocery-anchored shopping centers. This type of real estate works well with the friendly, personal shopping environment we offer.
How does Learning Express position itself and compete against the national discount chains that compete very aggressively on toys, particularly during the holidays?
We have exclusive products that we develop every year with some of our top vendors, and these products are available only at Learning Express. These products, along with our competitive promotions, never fail to drive traffic. Beyond that, it’s our expert advice and our services that set us apart from the big-box stores. Also, there is a growing awareness about the importance and the advantages of shopping locally.
Learning Express opened up pop-up shops during the past two holiday seasons. How did they do, and is that something that will continue?
In the past two years, our “pop-up” stores have been a hot commodity for landlords seeking to represent the toy category in the fourth quarter, as many retail spaces — particularly in malls — remained partly empty due to the economic downturn.
All of the Learning Express holiday stores are owned and operated by existing franchisees who are approached by a local landlord. These temporary stores are incredibly lucrative, and we are certainly interested in continuing the program, but it is entirely dependent on the economic conditions.
How many stores do you expect to open in 2011?
We opened 14 new locations in 2010, bringing our total store count to 150 — an important milestone in the history of the franchise. We plan to open an additional 15 to 20 stores in the coming year.
In 2010, how did Learning Express stand in average sales per square foot?
They range from $285 to $971 per square foot.
Learning Express prides itself on offering a memorable shopping experience. What other retailers do you think do a good job in this regard?
Nordstrom and The Container Store.
As CEO, what’s your favorite part of the job?
It’s still all about the product for me. I am very active in selecting which products we advertise and which products we order for our new stores.