Specialty Toy Stores Shift Strategy During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Q&A with Learning Express

learning-expressApril 6, 2020 | As many states mandate the closure of all non-essential businesses, small business owners are finding new ways to interact and engage with their customers. Toy News Tuesday editors spoke with Lisa Visco, vice president of merchandising at Learning Express, about the resilience of its franchise owners and how the 100-plus stores across 27 states are shifting their businesses to meet the needs of their customers as they stay at home.

How is the COVID-19 crisis impacting Learning Express store owners and Learning Express’ overall business operations?

Visco: All our stores’ showrooms are closed at this time. However, we were able to very quickly create mini ecommerce sites for our stores a few weeks ago, and over half of our stores are selling through these sites. Any product purchase will be picked up curbside or delivered via FedEx, UPS, or in some cases by the owner, depending on the store’s local and state mandates.

They are doing what they can to stay in business, but it’s been a rough few weeks, which will likely intensify post-Easter once demand for product lessens. A number of our stores are no longer able to take deliveries, and many manufacturers aren’t shipping either.

Tell us more about these mini ecommerce sites.

Visco: The mini sites are ecommerce sites that each store can tweak based on their inventory. Only products they own will show up on their site. This is different from the corporate Learning Express ecommerce site, which only shows products that at least three fulfilling stores own. Stores have been marketing their mini sites through email and other social media and have had a great response from their customers, who are thrilled to have a local resource to assist them at this time.

Given that Learning Express stores are so well known for their neighborhood connections and in-store experiences, how are owners adapting to the changes and remaining engaged with their communities?

Visco: I’m amazed and impressed at our owners’ resilience and creativity. They were among the first ones to dream up curbside pickup where no social distancing rules were breached. We have owners doing Facebook Live storytime sessions. One husband-and-wife team even dressed up as Jasmine and Aladdin and video chatted with a five-year-old whose party was canceled to sing to her and wish her a happy birthday. There are tons more stories like these ¬− and if you’ve been following their Facebook or Instagram pages, then I’m sure you’re seeing them as well!

One of our core programs this time of year is what we call our Bunny Buffet. If a customer spends $25 or more, they receive a free personalized bucket with their child’s name “hand-painted” on it. Given that Easter is less than a week away, many parents are in panic mode wondering how the Easter Bunny is going to make it to their homes. Our owners have reached out to their customers − via email, Facebook, and/or their store mini sites − to let them know that they have this service available. Some stores are offering pre-set buckets, others are allowing customers to customize, and, in some cases, they are even offering suggestions. The response they have received has been overwhelming.


Stores that are taking phone, email, and mini-site orders have far fewer transactions than if they were open and it was business as usual. And while many of these orders are also time-consuming (half an hour or more spent with customers as they decide what they want), the customers are so appreciative of our stores’ efforts.

Examples: Learning Express The Woodlands, TX and University Park, FL locations hosted their own Facebook Live storytime sessions with the Easter Bunny this month, while Learning Express of Louisvile, KY; San Ramon, CA(pictured); and Franklin, MA are highlighting their Easter baskets and bundles on social media.

What is Learning Express seeing in terms of trending products right now? Are your franchises doing anything differently to interact with their customers and highlight the importance of play?

Visco: Our stores have reported that sales of workbooks and other learning aids have never been stronger, as parents try to help their children keep learning in this new stay-at-home environment. In addition, sales of outdoor items and sidewalk chalk, in particular, have been very strong. We’ve created emails and Facebook posts to help get the message out. Some of our stores have run coloring contests in which they’ve asked kids to draw a picture of what they like most about staying home – to try to get a positive message out there.

Here’s a few additional examples of how Learning Express stores are helping their local communities:

Learning Express has been touched by the support we have received from so many of our vendors during this difficult time. We are proud to be a part of this industry. We know that we will weather the storm together and emerge on the other side stronger and more resilient than ever.

To learn more about Learning Express and find a location near you, click here

How is your company responding during this time of uncertainty? If you have a story to share, email jlynch@toyassociation.org.