by Sharon DiMinico
People ask me all the time how I got into the toy business so I thought I’d write an abbreviated version of my journey. It’s probably a familiar story for many business owners, but here goes….
My dad was an entrepreneur. I vividly remember his stories at the dinner table about the many projects he was working on or his latest invention… the “slotter” that puts the slot and threads in screws; a zip code reading machine for the post office, or an auto gyro he was building for the army. He started his own design and manufacturing company when I was 2 years old, so over the years, there were many, many stories. My mother was a homemaker and a true partner. In the early years, she raised the family while my dad worked 18 hrs. a day. My two sisters and I were taught very early on that if you worked hard, you could do almost anything. My parents always encouraged us to “dream big”.
After college, I moved to Washington DC and worked for the National Geographic Society. After two years, my husband took a job with a Boston law firm and I fell in love with Massachusetts. I tried to get a job in publishing but so was every other graduate in the Boston area. So I went to an employment office and interviewed for the highest paying job they had in their files – a sales and bookkeeping position for the Beacon Tile and Marble Company. Pretty good for an English Lit major with zero background in finance.
I learned the business from the ground up, worked with designers and their customers, and ultimately helped estimate small jobs. Three years later, with much encouragement from my boss and mentor, I opened my own tile and marble shop in Acton, MA….Upstairs Downstairs Tile and Bath Shoppe. I’ll always remember our grand opening – it was the day President Nixon resigned, August 9, 1974.
Running a construction business in the early 70’s, in a mostly male-dominated business, wasn’t easy for a young woman in her twenties. I’ll skip those details, but the lessons learned over the next 10 years were invaluable…and the business grew. I will always remember unloading 40lb. boxes of tile and 50lb. bags of grout off the tail end of a 16-wheeler! Ugh!
Under the same roof, I created a small kitchen and bath retail shop, which was my first introduction to retail! I was hooked! I loved going to shows, buying, merchandising, marketing and selling accessory items for the baths and kitchens we were remodeling.
In 1980, one of my customers was a local real estate developer and I learned later, also a neighbor. Skipping over the marital details, I married Lou DiMinico in 1981.
Two kids and 4 years later, I sold my tile business and decided to open a toy store. I vividly remembered the emotions I felt buying my first child’s nursery items. Shamefully, I never looked at a price tag, but turned to my sister at the register and said that one day I would be in a business that revolved around kids. That was in 1983.
With two kids in tow, I must have visited at least 50-75 toy stores from southern Maine to Connecticut over the next 3 years. I kept a journal of the brands I liked, great merchandising statements, fixture designs, store layouts, flooring, lighting, signage and customer service techniques. These notes ultimately became part of the 1st store operations manual.
Knowing that children learn through play, the retail plan that emerged was based on the premise that toys had to be fun, yet help develop curious minds, strong bodies and important social skills. I wanted my store to provide a fun and friendly environment with a knowledgeable sales staff, out from behind the counter, providing expert advice to parents. I felt free gift-wrapping, free personalization, civic fundraising, in-store events, and a loyalty program, would set Learning Express apart from the big box retailers with their endless aisles of everything pink and black aisles of villainous-looking action figures.
In 1987, I was president of the board of The Groton Community School, a private preschool that my children attended in my hometown of Groton, Massachusetts. I set out to raise revenues without raising tuition and offered the school the opportunity to open the first Learning Express… a specialty toy store concept I had been working on since 1984 – a year after my second child was born.
So I opened the first Learning Express in Acton, Massachusetts, with sales supporting the Groton Community School, providing the ROI they needed to provide health insurance for their teachers and much needed playground equipment and curriculum supplies.
Six month later, I opened my own store in Needham, MA. During those first six months, I read an article in Inc. Magazine on franchising and thought it was a great way to expand. We began franchising in 1990 – and continued to open across the U.S. Today we have over 100 stores in 27 states.
In the early years, my husband, Lou, helped me with real-state & leasing but he has since retired.
Our daughter Lauren has been helping me open stores since she was twelve years old. After working at General Electric and Nike, for 4 years, she and her husband Mike asked to join the company in 2012. I always wanted her to work at Learning Express but did not want to pressure her. When I asked Lauren why she wanted to join the company, she said she had never seen anyone happier at work than me. 🙂
Our son Michael started in the business in the 5th grade, helping me write a buying program for what was then a HOT product – “POGS”! He lives in Orlando, FL and is working in the solar industry.
Learning Express has always been a family affair. Our storeowners refer to their brother and sister storeowners as family. The people I work with every day are like family. No numbered employees here!
The challenges today are very different than they were 30+ years ago. There was no Internet, no Amazon, no social media or electronic marketing. No Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or You Tube. To keep up, we grew our company from 9 people twenty years ago to over 30 people today.
We’ve witnessed the demise of Child World, LearningSmith, Zany Brainy, Kay Bee Toys, FAO Schwarz and now Toys R Us – all very sad. Have there been opportunities for independent toy stores like Learning Express from all these closures? Yes and No. YES because more market share opens up and NO because the disruption in sales when a store is liquidating affects our sales, too.
That said, we have existed alongside all of the aforementioned stores for years. We have ALWAYS had the philosophy that if you carry the toys that kids want, have a team of people whose job it is to make the customer happy with their purchase and offer a WOW shopping experience, sales will follow. We have always believed in hands-on, experiential shopping. It has worked for us for over 30 years!
Now I think in terms of what will happen in the next 30 years with my daughter in mind. I’m a big believer in the “personal” 1-on-1 experience when shopping. I don’t think it matters if you’re a Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial or a Gen Z. People like connections – especially when shopping for their family. The locally-owned and operated store provides that connection. When I was a kid in West Hartford, CT, my sister and I would go to a store called the Toy Chest and would check out the toys we wanted for our birthday or Christmas. Mo Schlein, the owner, would say to my mother: “Dorothy, Sharon wants this art kit, a marble run and a pogo stick; Sandy wants a Madame Alexander doll to add to her collection, a monopoly game and a badminton set. That is the type of connection I’m talking about. He knew our family.
I totally understand the convenience of shopping on line. I do it all the time, mainly because I live an hour west of Boston and the nearest shopping center is more than 30 minutes away. I would prefer to shop locally, however, because I like to examine my purchases for friends and family. I also like well-merchandised stores where gifts are arranged by theme and I can look at everything at once. It also pleases me that a percentage of the revenue from my local store goes back to my town or my state – not Minneapolis, MN (Target) or Bentonville, AK (Walmart)!
I hope you enjoyed the Learning Express story and I hope you enjoy our stores on your next visit.