Retail Merchandiser - January/February 2011 - (Page 96)
REPORT Learning Express
The business structure behind this developmental toy store franchise makes sure children and parents walk away happy with their purchase.
efore the age of mommy bloggers, there was Sharon DiMinico. A mother for the first time at age 38, DiMinico was careful to select the right toys for her children, paying special attention to the educational aspect of each toy and the importance of connecting the right toy to the right child.
Turn it around
For the next four months, DiMinico ran Learning Express, which targets children from birth to age 12, with the help of volunteer parents. Eventually, she hired a manager and additional staff, but in between opening the first store and her own store in Needham, she read an article in Inc. on franchising that turned everything around. “I knew that with a young family I wouldn’t be able to open several stores,” said DiMinico, founder, president, and CEO of Learning Express, “so franchising seemed like an ideal opportunity. From my experience writing the operations manual for the first store, I realized as I read the article that franchising made perfect sense.” At the end of 2010, Learning Express had 152 stores nationwide, and all are franchised locations, including the Needham location that DiMinico sold in 1993. (Shortly thereafter, the Groton Community School sold its piece of the business as well.) The company’s 23 years of success, said DiMinico, come from the basic tenets of a franchise structure—having owneroperators running locations with employees doing more than just clerking a purchase. “Our franchisees learn what their customers are looking for and can respond to their individual markets,” she said. “Few large chain retailers can offer that level of personalization; for most, it’s a one-size-fits-all concept. That doesn’t work for what we’re doing.”
She quickly noticed there weren’t any toy stores near her Groton, Mass. home that offered the kinds of toys she and her fellow parents wanted. The majority of her own children’s toys, for example, were ordered through catalogues. “It was almost impossible to find development-oriented toys,” she said. “Building blocks, for example, are a cornerstone of a child’s development, but I could only find mass merchant toys in local stores.” DiMinico had owned a contracting business with a strong retail component when she was in her 20s and already had experience as a business owner. Need and experience merged together, and she began looking at opening an educational toy store in Needham, Mass. But when, as president of her children’s nursery school, Groton Community, she became privy to their financial situation, she saw a greater opportunity. “I knew immediately that the school needed more than the benefits of the fundraising projects it would do on a monthly basis,” DiMinico said.
Sharon DiMinico, founder, president, and CEO www.learningexpress.com HQ Ayer, Mass. Locations 150-plus Service Franchised developmental toy store
“I presented my business plan to the board in January 1987 and said I would be happy to start this business for them and help run it for four to five months. I hadn’t even opened my first store yet, but they believed in it.” DiMinico remortgaged the school building, and with more than $60,000 in hand (including a bit of her own money), she went to the Toy Fair that February. In March, she opened the first Learning Express in Acton, Mass.
Even today, Learning Express continues to differentiate itself from other toy retailers through its product assortment. The company employs three buyers who attend toy fairs, gift shows, book fairs, museum shows, and stationary shows to
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