Product Mix Gives Edge to Learning Express


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.


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Connecting With Customers Across Channels


Today’s retail customers are both demanding and spoiled by extensive choices. Channels and touch points are proliferating, smart access devices have grown, and customer expectations around these have leapfrogged. More than ever, customers want a consistent, personalized cross-channel experience. Chain Store Age spoke with Wipro’s Saurabh Mittal about how retailers can meet these expectations. 

Retailers have so many channels today when it comes to connecting with their customers. What are some of their biggest challenges in this regard?
Let’s face it, today’s retail customers are very demanding and spoiled for choice. Channels and touch points are proliferating, smart access devices have grown and customer expectations around these have leapfrogged. Customers are evolving faster than the industry and expect innovation on part of brands and organizations; they want a consistent, personalized cross-channel experience.

Retailers need to segment and understand their customers using predictive analytics to stay ahead of their competition and ahead of what their customers expect. The data points provide invaluable insight that can be used in determining and optimizing the market-mix model and changing the messaging depending on channel preference. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is to leverage increasingly smart technology to redefine and reinvent customer relationships and experiences.

What kind of shopping experience do customers expect online?
Customers demand a smooth, rich and immersive shopping experience. They expect their online shopping experience to constantly improve and evolve as more innovative and next-generation technologies become available. As the social Web grows, people want an increased level of interaction between product pages on e-commerce sites and social media sharing capabilities, as well as consumer review sites. 

Additionally, online shoppers are looking for innovative and engaging widgets on their desktops and on their mobile devices. They are looking for shopping on mobile sites, which opens up new online shopping expectations, such as e-commerce sites that are mobile-friendly, providing them with easy navigation and a very simple checkout process to purchase directly from their phones.

Retailers need to build more intelligence into their online shopping initiatives to offer a personalized experience where the shopper feels more connected. Online shopping growth would increase if retailers were to innovate and provide better online experience to customers. It is constrained at the moment.

Are retailers meeting these expectations?
Retailers are meeting some of the expectations of their customers. But there is a long journey ahead in terms of catching up with customer expectations. One of the primary reasons why retailers are falling short is because they operate on wafer thin margins and have been traditionally tardy in adopting technology. This is because their systems were built in silos, they don’t have cross channel visibility and a considerable amount of technological and process restructuring is required. Retail has piggy backed on outside innovation like devices, apps, group buying and location-based promotions for a while now. The bottom line is that it is time for retail to wake up and lead the innovation with partners.

How can retailers better connect with online customers? 

The key is leveraging customer insight. Although most retailers collect and track customer data in some form, the majority do not effectively leverage it. Most retailers can explain shoppers’ buying patterns and preferences, but they do not understand their buying values, or why the customer purchases what they do. Without this information, retailers are not able to have a dialogue with their customers and end up having a monologue. 

Retailers that have a dialogue with their customers are the ones that gain the greatest insights on understanding the buyer’s values, decision drivers, spending patterns, brand preferences, channel preferences, social influencers and peer behaviors. The end result is high-performance customer insight, and the ability to create a more innovative offering and enhanced online customer experience.

How are social media and mobile commerce impacting the customer experience?
Retailers must use social media to share information; enhance the brand; introduce new products; review and price products; run promotions and offer group shopping deals. Retailers must use social media to engage customers with reviews and ratings, and use the channel for two-way dialogue to acquire feedback. 

Technology today has social media listening tools that can pick up sentiment data, information on competition, changing customer preferences and provide retailers with that extra edge to enhance customer experience and maximize the share of the wallet of their most valuable customers.

Mobiles are quintessential to life — they bring together my online world, my social network and my real life. But to leverage this, business processes need to embrace social media and mobile technology. 

What is Wipro’s main area of expertise?
We work with the world’s leader global retailers and consumer product companies and many of them ask us questions like “How to conquer new geographies online?”, “How to improve the cross channel experience and drive consumption?” and “How can technology and analytics impact the buyer’s decision making process and transform shopping?”

Our global retail experience puts us in a unique position to understand the emerging retail landscape, create customer insight, enhance customer experience through engagement, create deep customer relationships through personalization and help our customers reinvent the future of retail with our service offerings around consulting and IT services.

How can Wipro help retailers provide a better customer experience?

There are three clear aspects to customer experience: adequate availability of information, a seamless cross-channel experience and personalization. Wipro has achieved this for some of the largest and most prestigious retailers in the United States and Europe. I’d go as far as to suggest that by enabling dependable customer insight, we have managed to help our retail customers do business better.


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New Concepts: Five to Watch

BY Al Urbanski

New concepts remain the lifeblood of retail. A child- and mom-friendly apparel specialty store, two Canadian imports, an iconic 102-year-old brand and a Polish cosmetics giant are among the latest companies looking to make their mark on the nation’s retail scene. The five up-and-comers are profiled here.

HOT MAMA: A frustrating shopping experience—aisles and fitting rooms hard to navigate with a stroller, clothes that didn’t quite fit right and not very helpful associates—convinced new mom Megan Tamte that a gap existed in the women’s apparel marketplace. That gap gave rise to Hot Mama, a retail concept dedicated to helping moms look good — and to providing them with a comfortable shopping experience from start to finish. 

Tamte and her husband, Mike (who currently serves as CEO and chairman), did a lot of research before opening the first Hot Mama in 2004, in Edina, Minn. All the planning paid off: The company has blossomed. It currently has spread to 17 Midwest locations.

Aggressive expansion plans call for 10 new stores this year and 14 next year against a goal of 50 by 2014.

“Our intent is to become a national chain,” said Kristina Klockars, VP, Hot Mama, Edina, Minn. “We are comfortable with four-season buying, so we’ll start growing in the North. Then it’s on to three-season states, then further south. You’ll most likely see us in Texas and Arizona in three years.”

Hot Mama feels the time is right for a national expansion. 

“We don’t believe that we have any competitors, that is, retailers who are specifically targeting moms,” Klockars said. “Nordstrom and J. Crew target women in their 30 to 40s, but not moms specifically. There is a big, gaping hole in the marketplace.”

Hot Mama seeks to fill that need in the trend with stylish clothing and accessories that work for a variety of ages, lifestyles and figures. As Megan Tamte found out back in 1997, new moms usually must bid adieu to their pre-baby bodies.

“When we do buying, we look for different qualities, different body types. We have to look at cuts that minimize the presence of larger bellies or bigger butts,” Klockars explained. 

Hot Mama considers itself a boutique. The sweet-spot range for spring tops is $58 to $78. Denim is a big seller, with an average price point of $135. Sales per square foot tally around $450. 

Hot Mama deals in such national brands as James Jeans, Hudson and Lulumari. But the company plans to introduce private-label brands once store proliferation lifts volume enough to make it feasible. Maternity wear accounts for about 10% of the mix, but Hot Mama is dropping it in new stores to more sharply focus its identity.

The store experience is all about moms’ needs. There are play areas for kids in close proximity to dressing rooms, which are extra-wide to accommodate strollers. While the store associates may not be necessarily mothers themselves, they are schooled in aspects of motherhood. > 

“They are trained to assess body types, age and lifestyles when customers walk through the door and start pecking off possible items in their heads immediately,” Klockars explained. “Moms often stop at the store in between kid drop-offs and don’t have much time.”

New stores will keep with the current 2,500-sq.-ft. footprint, but interiors will morph from Northern rustic to suburban sophisticated. Its gray walls and cherrywood fixtures will be replaced by creamy hues and hot metal. The retailer’s signature touches of red will be retained.

“We’re going lighter and brighter, posh-ing it up a bit while keeping it grounded and casual,” explained director of visual merchandising Amy Schmitt. “The floors will be a lighter color, for instance, but still distressed and with a soft sound.”

Hot Mama debuted its updated look with the recent opening of its store in Lone Tree, Colo.

ARITZIA: While Target and other U.S. retailers expand northward, a stylish Canadian import has come stateside. The brand, Aritzia, which specializes in on-trend fashions for women ages 18 to 35, has big plans. 

The vertically integrated company is headed by Canadian retail veteran Brian Hill, who started his career at the Vancouver department store — Hill’s — his grandfather founded in 1914. (The store is still in the family, and is operated by Hill’s father and brother.)

“Customer service and fashionable merchandise are an essential part of Aritzia and, as a result, our sales per square foot are among the highest in our category in Canada and in the top quartile in the U.S.,” said Hill, CEO, Aritzia, Vancouver, which operates 48 stores, including eight in the United States. 

Some 80% of Aritzia’s stock is exclusive, with in-house design teams dedicated to various labels ranging in price and positioning. Designer brands, including Marc by Marc Jacobs, J Brand and Rag & Bone, make up the remainder. 

Aritzia’s average sales per square foot exceed $1,500 in Canada — well above industry average — and they do not appear to be lagging far behind in the company’s U.S. locations. Aritzia reports same-store sales gains topping 30%, with such locales as San Francisco, Chicago and Short Hills, N.J., ringing up 70% increases in recent months.

“We brought something to the party that was needed,” said Sally Parrott, VP marketing, Aritzia. “The U.S. market is ripe for new retail concepts. There are not a lot of new ideas in our category.“

Parrott added that while fast-fashion retailers such as H&M and Topshop have thrived in the recession, Aritzia succeeded in tapping women’s desires for added sophistication and quality, with prices that range from $40 tops to $400 leather jackets.

“Aritzia is aspirational,” Parrott explained. “It’s giving younger women who’d like to shop in boutiques a taste of sophistication but at an affordable price.” 

Aritzia will unveil its flagship U.S. location, a 10,000-sq.-ft., two-level store at Broadway and Spring Street in Manhattan’s SoHo area, this summer. 

“We intentionally moved into the U.S. slowly,” Parrott said. “We wanted to get our proposition right before we moved into Manhattan.”

Adding to the company’s appeal is that no two Aritzia stores are exactly alike. Interiors favor natural woods and original art produced by a staff of in-house artists and designers. The stores are known for funky signage; indie rock soundtracks; and irreverent, wildlife-inspired window displays, such as flying cats and space reindeer.

“We try to build stores that are in tune with what’s going on with the people, to connect people with the energy of the culture,” CEO Hill said. “We spend a lot doing it, north of $300 per square foot. We don’t want to wake up one day and find our stores out of date.” 

Aritzia’s future growth will be pegged on the United States, where it is on the hunt for real estate. The chain’s focus is on prize locations in urban markets and footprints of 4,000 sq. ft. and up.

“We are actively looking for opportunities in the U.S. but will be selective,” Hill added. 

JOE FRESH: “I’m shocked that Joe Fresh hasn’t invaded the States yet,“ wrote Web blogger Susan C. of Brooklyn last year after visiting a Loblaws in Canada. “Their clothes are cuter than the Gap’s and about half the price.”

As it turns out, the Brooklyn blogger will soon be able to shop Joe Fresh stateside. The brand, an in-store apparel shop housed in hundreds of Loblaws supermarkets throughout Canada, is headed south of the border. > 
First stop: Midtown Manhattan, where a 20,000-sq.-ft. Joe Fresh flagship opens this fall.

The brainchild of Joe Mimran, founder of Club Monaco, Joe Fresh offers T-shirts, pants, skirts, jackets and activewear with a focus on women, but for men and children as well. All items retail for less than $59.

The brand also boasts its own cosmetics line, Joe Fresh Beauty, which includes foundations and more than 60 shades of lip and eye products. Prices range from $4 to $8 for makeup, and $2 to $16 for brushes and accessories. 

The Manhattan flagship will not be Joe Fresh’s first freestanding store. Maxed out in the supermarkets and sensing wider appeal for the concept, Loblaws opened a 14,000-sq.-ft. Joe Fresh stand-alone store in Vancouver last fall that will serve as the model for expansion. The plan calls for 20 more stores in Canada in the coming year. But it is in the United States where the company sees Fresh reaching fruition. Mimran, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has been quoted as saying he envisions as many as 800 U.S. locations.

Along with its value prices, Joe Fresh offers wide aisles, clearly marked pricing and sizing, and colorful merchandise treatments. Also, shoppers are free to take as many items as they please into its extra-large fitting rooms.

At the Joe Fresh Vancouver store, huge windows fill the two levels that separate women’s sportswear and accessories on the main floor from men’s, women’s active, women’s sleepwear and intimates on the second level. Neutral interiors allow gray clothes to shine in a modulating spectrum of color. Items are displayed on Parsons tables and a powder-coated metal wall system. 

The store design, by interior design firm Burdifilek, Toronto, should transfer well to the New York City site, a glass, aluminum and steel box built in 1953 for Manufacturers Hanover Trust. The building was one of the first “transparent” structures of the International Style erected in the United States.

“It was vital for us to find a unique location for our first U.S. store,” said Mimran, who serves as the brand’s creative director, in a press statement. 

No subsequent U.S. locations have been identified. For now, company execs prefer to concentrate on The Big Apple.

“We can’t wait to see the reaction from those new to the brand when they first see our style, feel our fabrics and appreciate our value,” said Lucy van der Wal, who is heading up the stand-alone store division. 

CONVERSE: In show biz, old stars wind up playing grandparents on TV sitcoms. In shoe biz, old stars are applauded as hip, cool icons on Broadway. 

That is, of course, if the star is Converse, which recently opened its second freestanding store ever, on Lower Broadway in Manhattan’s SoHo district. The 102-year-old company — now a subsidiary of Nike — has been developing its store concept for five years. The design builds a story of heritage, Americana, and urban chic around the old playground warhorse of the ’60s and ’70s. An American flag constructed of hundreds of red, white and blue Chuck Taylor All-Stars greets shoppers at the entrance. 

“Go to an ad agency and they’ll ask you what’s your brand about, where’s your brief? We just hand them the Chuck Taylor and say, ‘There you go,’ ” said Steven Horn, the company’s director of global retail development who oversaw the design of Converse’s first-ever freestanding stores. (The first opened last fall on Newbury Street in Boston.)

Reminders of Converse’s heritage abound in the 7,000-sq.-ft. New York flagship. Old photographs in rough-hewn wooden frames show basketball legend Julius Erving airborne in his Chucks, rockers wearing multi-colored variations of the classic, and a bespectacled James Dean lounging with his feet up, displaying the signature soles of his Jack Purcells.

“Our brand was born in basketball and raised in rock and roll,” Horn said. “It’s a democratic brand. It transcends all ages and groups — the jocks, the artists, the rock-and-rollers, cool and nerdy alike.”

Underlying universal appeal as a theme in the New York store is a foundation of urban hipness. White subway tiles on the walls pay homage to the New York City subway system. Recycled wood flooring and other elements create a feeling of authenticity.

Prices are handwritten on duct tape and slapped on walls and bottoms of sneakers. Ladies’ tops and men’s hoodies and plaid shirts are $58. Jeans are $78 and come in three fits for each gender — slim, rocker and classic for women. > 

The subway tile gets a cathedral ceiling treatment in the shoe department, where Chucks and Jacks are displayed on wooden bleachers taken from an old high school gymnasium. The salespeople, outfitted in baggies and hoodies, give an added dose of street-cred to the brand.

The store features what it calls the largest selection of Converse footwear in the world. The merchandise mix also includes the brand’s new collection of women’s and men’s apparel and accessories, ranging from denim to outerwear to graphic tees. 

The store also allows shoppers to customize both footwear and apparel to their own liking. Hundreds of designs are available from iPads at the counter, and customization “Maestros” manning ink-jet printers at the rear of the store help customers tattoo their own high-tops and apparel. Designs start at $30 for one side of the shoe, $45 for two.

“People have been customizing Chucks on their own for ages; now we’ve brought it into the 21st century,” Horn said. “It’s the great thing about having our own stores. For the first time, we have the ability to express and showcase our brand through our own lens.”

Converse would not disclose plans for future locations at press time. But the company reportedly plans to invest in retail going forward. 

INGLOT: The Polish are coming — and they have their sights set on the lucrative U.S. cosmetic market.

Inglot Cosmetics, a vertical company that makes 95% of its product in Poland, is a 240-store global chain founded 20 years ago by Polish chemist Wojtek Inglot. The brand tiptoed into America in 2009, opening in Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif., Forum Shops in Las Vegas, and Times Square in Manhattan. Several additional locations followed. 

The company is looking to carve out a small piece of the $60 billion-plus U.S. beauty market that has been left on the glass display case by department stores.

“Inglot is looking to fill a void for color in the cosmetics market, and at prices about 20% lower than MAC,” said Alan Napack, senior director of retail services for Cushman & Wakefield in New York City, which is directing the Polish retailer’s move into the United States. 

Inglot is betting on its sleek shops, colorful offerings and accessible prices to win over consumers. The stark black and white hues of its stores, which run from 500 sq. ft. to 1,000 sq. ft., draw attention to the colorful cosmetics displayed openly on lacquered display tables. 

Salespeople, all trained cosmeticians, help shoppers build custom-color palettes employing the company’s “Freedom System.” Inglot is famed for its breadth of colors, with some 165 shades of eye shadow, 90 of lipstick, 29 of blush and 21 of pressed powder available for mixing and matching. 

Freedom and lower prices may well serve as an enticement to cash-strapped young shoppers. One recent visitor to the Times Square location, a makeup artist, reported paying only $25 for the Freedom palette and five pigments. 

Inglot has hundreds of U.S. locations on the drawing board within the next five years, both company-owned and privately run. The bulk of its stores worldwide are run by independent operators through licensing agreements.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Napack said Inglot is currently considering several deals to open licensed stores in smaller markets. But the company intends to keep control of stores in major metro areas.


Leave a Reply

S.Anderson says:
Mar-14-2013 09:30 pm

If we take a look at how many shopping options we have today few guidelines and reviews are most welcomed. I wish I had them in for my city shopping centers and brands. I admit that I need serious help when shopping for perfumes, it's overwhelming to make a choice, I always ask for in-store support.

S.Anderson says:
Mar-14-2013 09:30 pm

If we take a look at how many shopping options we have today few guidelines and reviews are most welcomed. I wish I had them in for my city shopping centers and brands. I admit that I need serious help when shopping for perfumes, it's overwhelming to make a choice, I always ask for in-store support.

B.Brent says:
Nov-30-2012 03:25 pm

If the timing is right, then expansion should be pursued. A lot of factors is to be considered. But if you are a businessman, you have the gut feeling when to carry this out. - James Stuckey

B.Brent says:
Nov-30-2012 03:25 pm

If the timing is right, then expansion should be pursued. A lot of factors is to be considered. But if you are a businessman, you have the gut feeling when to carry this out. - James Stuckey



Do you think retail brands should steer clear of taking a stance on social and political issues?