June, July and August are the dog days for toy retailers, a time when sales and foot traffic dip to their lowest points as more kids opt to play outside rather than troll the local toy store for the latest tchotchke.
In recognizing this dilemma, six years ago educational toy retailer Zany Brainy began organizing read-ins as a way to try and slow the kid exodus. To date, the Pennsylvania-based company has enjoyed some startling success.
Since 1994, over 100,000 kids have attended Zany’s Summer Reading Clubs, which run from mid-June to early August. And during those off-peak months, Zany Brainy has seen its kid traffic jump from 20,000 kids per month for its regular events, up to 80,000 for the read-ins, according to Carol Mackin, special events manager for the chain.
‘During the school year, it’s easy to get kids to come to our event programs, but when you’re competing with the warmer weather and outdoor activities, you need something more to bring them in,’ says Mackin.
Though she wouldn’t divulge specifics, Mackin says the read-ins have yielded a positive spike in sales for its books, as well as other product categories.
And while not all kids might be jazzed by the prospect of reading books during the summer, Mackin says the events hold a strong appeal for parents who are concerned that their child’s appetite for learning will fall off once school is out.
In all, ZB organizes four reading clubs, each grouped by age: for four- and five-year-olds, six- and seven-year-olds, eight- and nine-year-olds, and for kids ages 10 and up. Each club meets once a week for an hour at a ZB store to read and discuss one of the eight books that Mackin’s department has selected.
The titles ZB chooses for the read-ins are usually linked to a theme, says Mackin. Last year’s theme, time travel, featured works by authors like Mary Pope Osborne and Dr. Seuss. This year’s theme will focus on real heroes and extraordinary kids. For competitive reasons, Mackin would not discuss individual books, but added that the majority of titles that Zany will use belong in the nonfiction genre.
Zany Brainy bundles all eight of the books together and sells them to customers along with a free gift or premium; last year the company gave out knapsacks. Once kids and parents have registered with a reading club, they receive a kit detailing the books, as well as a Parent Pages brochure that provides parents with talking points for each title, so they can discuss the books at home. The kit also offers suggestions for related activities and products, and kids get a reading club card that entitles them to 10% discounts off store purchases.
To help absorb the cost of putting on the events-except for the books, the read-ins are free to kids and parents-Zany Brainy has secured a number of sponsors in the past, including AOL, National Geographic, Random House and Nickelodeon. While not all sponsors have been finalized, some of the pubcos that are on-board for this year include Bantam, Doubleday Dell, Scholastic, HarperCollins and Penguin Putnam.
In May, Zany Brainy will start marketing the reading clubs through its Zany Zone brochures, which will be sent out to 1.5 million U.S. homes. Additional exposure will come from its Web site, where the company will promote the read-ins in its events section, and via in-store signage.
With the reading clubs already a solid success, Mackin says the next step is to try and further leverage the event sales potential by coordinating more cross-promotions with the chains’ key vendors.
‘We’d like to incorporate other items that we sell in the stores, like science kits, which are also consistent with the theme of the read ins,’ says Mackin.