Digital Commerce 360
Gretchen Salois Original Article Posted at Digital Commerce 360.
The pandemic fueled a social commerce phenomenon that resulted in an unexpected jump in web sales thanks to children sharing popular toys like Pop Its and Squishmallows on TikTok. Toy retail chain Learning Express is riding this wave of success while keeping an eye out for the next big social platform opportunity.
It happens every year, the “it” toy that every child just has to have. In the 1990s there was Tickle Me Elmo and Pokémon trading cards. In the 2000s, the Apple iPod Touch, Xbox and Nintendo DS debuted. Among the top favored toys in 2020 and 2021: Pop Its, Squishmallow stuffed animals and fidget spinners, says Meghan Thompson, marketing manager at Learning Express. But it’s how these items skyrocketed in popularity in 2020 and 2021 that is unprecedented—by children sharing videos of the popular items via the TikTok app.
“The pandemic really made TikTok explode—and that’s when our stores started creating accounts to keep communication open with our customers who are children, tweens and teens,” says Thompson. “Kids started finding us on their own and fueled existing hot toy trends.”
Learning Express’ web sales increased 25% in 2021 compared with the already tremendous growth in 2020—when web sales grew 233% compared with 2019 for the toy chain. Plus, total sales increased 145% compared with 2020 and 86% compared with pre-pandemic 2019.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Learning Express has not spent any of its marketing budget on TikTok, “because we really haven’t had to,” Thompson says.
Learning Express is a national brand with individually owned locations. Learning Express gives each franchise the freedom to decide what to post on their store’s TikTok account. Thompson says while management provides some guidance, such as to keep content and language appropriate for its young consumers, each store has its own account and the freedom to create videos. For example, workers will create videos of themselves restocking popular items, or showing new inventory while sampling trending music sounds, lip-syncing or dance routines. The organically created videos with low production value are the most popular, she says. Videos that seem rehearsed or too polished do not reach the viewing levels compared to off-the-cuff videos.ADVERTISEMENT
The Learning Express Birmingham location in Alabama, for example, has 2.3 million TikTok followers as of January 2022. The shop’s pinned and most popular video received 62 million views and 4.7 million likes (where a viewer actively taps on the a heart icon to show they liked it) in June 2021 with the hashtag #fidgetfriday and #restock, which showed workers refilling inventory. Another popular video from the Birmingham location in March 2021 received nearly 25 million views and 2.5 million likes featuring store workers playfully throwing around Pop Its. (Learning Express declined to indicate how many total views its videos received collectively from all 109 store location TikTok accounts.)
The Learning Express store in Birmingham, Alabama has more than 2.3 million TikTok followers.
The more TikTok users that shared Learning Express videos on TikTok, the more phone calls Learning Express locations received about the toys shown. When certain videos received a jump in views, Learning Express experienced a coinciding rise in sales both online and in store, Thompson says. And as stores were able to reopen more in 2021 compared to 2020, Thompson says children would travel to the nearest store location to shop in-person—even if it required a bit of a road trip.
“We’ve had kids travel sometimes as far as three hours away because they saw us on TikTok,” she says.
A TikTok user shares Squishmallow videos with her 374,000 followers. This video is noted as her most popular with more than 4.5 million views, 1.2 million likes, and with hashtags tagging Learning Express to @leahswift’s post in the caption.ADVERTISEMENT
The TikTok trend has played an integral role in Learning Express’ growth since the beginning of the pandemic, says Thompson. But the toy retailer has not tracked how many visits to its website are a direct result of traffic from TikTok, nor how TikTok has directly impacted its web sales.
This year, Thompson says Learning Express has formed a TikTok subcommittee within the company to address web traffic and how to strategically invest in ads on the platform. The subcommittee will focus entirely on TikTok and will be separate from other social media initiatives. The question, says Thompson, is how much to invest and in what.
“It may include investing in software to streamline the publishing of content. Or an ad spend item—or neither of those. We have not decided to do that at this point,” Thompson says. “And we want to keep our eyes peeled for the next big thing because we saw how fast TikTok rose—that can happen again.”
Keeping up with demand
Fortunately for Learning Express, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, its stores already had a plentiful supply of popular toys like fidget spinners. The store also had popular Squishmallow stuffed toys in stock to fulfill demand. To continue to meet expectations in 2021, Learning Express made sure it had enough inventory to continue its trajectory.
Each store’s website has different inventory as demand varies by region, Thompson says. Shoppers can either drive to their nearest store location—or take a mini road trip to a store hours away as is the case with some customers, Thompson says. Shoppers looking to buy online pay shipping costs based on a tiered pricing model, the more you spend, the higher the shipping cost.
When customers go to the retailer’s website, they are prompted to input their zip code and the website defaults the shopper to the nearest store location’s webpage. Each location may display a different range of shipping costs.
In 2021, Learning Express also ordered inventory earlier than usual. Instead of placing orders for the holiday season in September of 2021, Thompson says Learning Express locations ordered items in June. This allowed plenty of time for toys to ship for holiday delivery. Previously, Learning Express stores could order inventory as late as December and receive it in time to ship to customers for the holidays.
Once inventory arrived with time to spare, Thompson says its store locations got to work promoting available inventory on TikTok, allowing the popularity of its franchises’ videos in 2020 to continue well into 2021.
Thompson says she is excited to see how TikTok will evolve to make it easier for viewers to shop directly in the app by tapping on tagged products like in other social platforms like Instagram. “We’re still waiting for TikTok to roll out an interactive shopping ad experience to all retailer accounts,” she says.