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The Franchise Advantage

Lauren Derse, Director of Marketing at Learning Express Toys
Paul Solimano
July 23rd, 2015

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Learning Express Toys is the nation’s leading franchisor of specialty toy stores. With approximately 130 stores countrywide, Learning Express has a reputation for being a fast-moving, forward-thinking company with a strong community focus. As a toy store, the company’s main goal is to “grow through play” and they achieve that with unique products, in-store experiences, community relations, and expertise.

Lauren Derse, Director of Marketing for Learning Express Toys, oversees the digital and print marketing departments and develops the company’s strategic marketing direction as well as acting as a buyer for infant and toddler categories.

5 Questions with Lauren:

1. What makes an innovative culture? How do you create a culture of innovation at Learning Express?

We are a very nimble company here at Learning Express Toys. We only have 30 people at our corporate office so we can make impactful change much more quickly than big companies that have more layers to go through for every decision. We also try to keep a relatively flat organizational structure so there’s quite a lot of collaboration that happens at Learning Express Toys.

We run into complexities operating under a franchise model, but it enables us to be able to get information to all 130 stores very quickly. For example, Rainbow Loom turned out to be one of our best selling products in 2013 and 2014 and it was actually discovered by our Alpharetta store owner, who ordered a small amount as a test, saw immediate success and then shared it with us at the corporate office. That level of information sharing allows us to take advantage of new ideas faster than our competitors.

We also don’t do any warehousing. We order directly from our vendors, which allows us to get products in stores quickly. In the toy industry, sales occur in cycles that align with different seasons, holidays, etc. Being able to respond quickly to changes we see in the market is a huge part of innovation at Learning Express Toys.

2. What is the biggest challenge you face when innovating?

We do face some challenges due to the fact that all of our stores are franchised. Since we don’t have any corporate stores, the different franchise operators can sometimes be slow to accept and implement new company ideas and innovations. However, next year we’re opening a corporate location in Bedford, MA, which will allow us to test new ideas right away.

3. How do you find ideas from adjacent industries? Or do you focus mostly on your category?

There are very few businesses in the toy category that do what we do, so it’s difficult to focus entirely on our own category; big-box companies like Toys R Us and Target, for example, are hard to compare directly to Learning Express Toys. We try to look at any business that focuses on experience, but one very lucrative category is young digital media companies. BaubleBar is an example of a really innovative company with experience in email and social media innovation. Young companies that have digital experience are generally entrepreneurial and disruptive and we can learn a lot from them.

We also look at a variety of retail companies when it comes to in-store displays or signage. During promotional periods we walk around the mall and see how other retailers are promoting in-store sales and sometimes we get ideas for our own displays.

4. How do you identify trends? What resources does your team use to spot trends and consumer insights?

We have a dedicated buying team operating out of our corporate office and they travel around to 10 or more toy shows every year to help stay in tune with our industry and generate new ideas, but really our franchise store owners are our secret weapon. They’re able to test ideas on a much smaller level by rolling out new products just in their location. We then use sales data to track trends and determine what ideas have legs that we can roll out company-wide. Finally we pick up on consumer trends by conducting surveys directly with our customers. We ask them about pricing, marketing, catalog preferences, etc.; we ask for candid feedback and that’s what we get.

5. Looking to the future, how is Learning Express Toys going to be a leader in innovation?

We’re going to keep our existing pipeline running and constantly look for new opportunities to improve. That’s a really important piece because the business landscape and market can change so quickly; if you’re not always looking for opportunity you will get left behind.

We are also really excited that we’ll be opening our first corporate store soon, which is going to help with some of the challenges that exist when you operate with a franchise model. With our corporate store we’ll be able to implement and test new ideas quickly and that are going to help us be a leader in innovation moving forward.