There’s a New Plush in Town

Mike Derse Franchise News, Franchising

DEVENS, Massachusetts. It’s a unique time to own a toy store.

Few recall Beanie Babies as vividly as Steve Kessel, former owner of the Learning Express toy store in Saugus, MA and now Regional Owner and Developer for the franchise brand. He was, after all, the chain’s number one retailer of the fuzzy collectibles that fetched prices far in excess of $5,000 in the secondary market on eBay.

Beanie Babies were so important to Learning Express that several exclusive styles, such as “Lex,” above, were created in partnership with Ty, Inc.

“Back in 2000, I had lines out the door,” he recalls, fondly. “Customers would camp out overnight just to secure a spot in line for a new release.”

20 years later, it’s happening all over again, but it’s not Beanie Babies driving the market. This time, kids and their parents are camping out in Learning Express store parking lots to get their hands on Squishmallows, a relatively new brand of plush collectibles, and fidget toys, a resurgence of the fidget spinner fad driven by creative new styles and manufacturing techniques. The two fads together are jokingly referred to by the company as a “Twin-demic.”

Hot fads alone did not account for the recent sales increases. The toy industry grew by $3.5 billion dollars in 2020, demonstrating that child happiness and development still drove parental purchasing decisions and did not diminish during uncertain economic times. The pandemic and its related lockdowns also inspired parents to seek new screen-free play alternatives to help entertain and educate their children.

“A lot has changed in retail in the past 20 years,” said Mike Derse, Director of Business Development for Learning Express. “We are experiencing the first pandemic of our generation, Amazon has become an industry-shaping force, and we are on the heels of the Retail Apocalypse that saw the bankruptcy and liquidation of so many household retail brand names, such as Toys ‘R Us.”

He then adds with a certain hint of irony, “And we’re having the best first quarter in our company’s history.”

Against all odds, thanks to the “Twin-demic,” clever franchisee marketing on the social media network TikTok, E-commerce improvements made during the 2020 lockdown, and the flexibility and ingenuity of its store owners, Learning Express no longer even saw Amazon as a threat to store sales. In March 2021, the platform was the franchise’s fourth largest supplier of toys.

That’s a remarkable turnaround for a company whose locations were mostly closed during March and April of 2020.

Mr. Kessel couldn’t help but to see the opportunity. “There really isn’t a better time to get into this business than right now,” he said. “I’m over-the-top excited for our store owners – they work hard and really deserve this.”

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If you are interested in learning more about our industry and how Learning Express can help you achieve your financial goals, request franchise information here. 

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