Learning Express

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Learning Express teaches its franchisees what their customers are looking for and how to respond to their individual markets.

By Bianca Herron

After nearly 30 years at play, Learning Express is the nation’s leading franchisor of children’s educational toy stores with more than 120 locations in 27 states. According to CEO, Sharon DiMinico, the Devens, Mass.-based company prides itself on the quality and uniqueness of its toy selection: a mix of products that foster a love of learning through play.

"We are a franchise company, so our success is based on the success of our stores,” DiMinico says. “We are primarily a support and marketing organization, and are fortunate to work with franchisees who are creative, high-energy, hard-working people.”

Learning Express tries to differentiate itself from other toy retailers by having an eclectic mix of toys, fashion forward accessories, and a great selection of STEAM toys. In addition, the company fully supports its franchisees by providing graphic design and artwork for advertisements, email, signage and Facebook at no cost.

“Our stores actively share selling, marketing, merchandising and cost-saving information,” DiMinico explains. “They understand that what is good for them is good for all. We produce seven catalogs annually for them and help them advertise many in-store events, including costume character appearances, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and through email and text messaging.”

 

Improved Tech

One of the company’s biggest advantages it offers their franchisees is the Learning Express Intranet, which keeps both franchisees and managers informed about what to stock: high-volume items, what sells the fastest and what offers the best margin.

“The Intranet has been around for at least 15 years,” DiMinico says. “On it, our storeowners can check our terms with vendors, find out what play-day kits from our vendors are available for in-store events and what our merchandisers feel is the best combination of products to fill a store. They can also find staff motivational tips, operational procedures, view a library of emails and ads to choose from, and can look up year-to-date item sales and sales by month so they can see what’s trending.”

The goal of the Intranet is to allow its franchisees to see what is selling so they do not make poor buying decisions, DiMinico adds. “Most of our franchisees are very entrepreneurial. That is an asset except when some try to reinvent the wheel,” she explains. “New franchisees, in their enthusiasm for having their own business for the first time, will often order blindly rather than reference our system’s item sales – from more than 100 stores – and instead rely on what their local representative is telling them. We try to catch this early on so it doesn’t become a cash flow problem.”

Learning Express is also developing software for automatic purchasing advice and establishing an online LE University, which will teach franchisees and employees about retail 101, marketing, and cash flow. “They’ll also learn about merchandising, sales techniques, social media and store operations,” DiMinico adds. “We are also re-designing our website this year. E-commerce is difficult in a franchise system because every store has a protected territory. To solve the problem, we had to build a website from scratch.

“When a customer places an order, it goes to the closest “ship-to” store that has the item rather than the “bill-to” store,” DiMinico continues. “If they don’t have the inventory, the order automatically goes to the next store in the same geographic cluster. If no one in the cluster has every item on the order, we have two corporate-fulfilling stores that carry every web item. Last November, we started offering the option of in-store pick-up, which has been well-received by our customers.”

Forging Connections

With 32 employees at its Massachusetts location, Learning Express prides itself on retaining workers. In fact, nearly half of them have been with the company for more than 10 years.

“Ten of our employees have been with us for more than 15 years,” DiMinico says. “Both our heads of merchandising and IT have been with us for 18 years. Employee retention is very important to us. We do not micro-manage our people. We set high expectations, but let people do their job with little supervision. I’m very satisfied with the job our managers are doing as they are always helping their team members develop by offering them more responsibility, which translates into advancement opportunities. In addition, we have flex hours and offer competitive salaries and benefit packages, including up to six weeks of time off. We also have a profit-sharing plan where team members can earn an additional 10 to 25 percent of their salary.”

Ultimately, the most import thing is a “job well done” that’s given on time, DiMinico concludes. “We are a family business and though we do not have a board of directors, we have a management team and I listen to their opinions before making important decisions,” she says. We also have a Franchise Advisory Board and a Marketing Advisory Board made up of our most experienced storeowners whose input I value.”

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