What lies between impersonal but highly efficient big-box stores and quality-conscious yet logistically confined specialty stores with high operating costs in the kids retail space in North America? The question is one that vexed Lake Forest, Illinois-based venture capitalist Shane Christensen as he started surveying the kid-oriented retail landscape a few years back. But he thinks he’s found the answer in Wonder! – a new kids retail superstore that will combine the most appealing aspects of big-box stores and their specialty counterparts. Christensen is aiming to open the first location of a planned Wonder! chain in Deerfield, Illinois, which sits on the outskirts of Chicago, in November.
Owing to its particularly wealthy and broad-based demographic, Deerfield is well-known as a good test market for new US retail concepts, and the 135,000-square-foot outlet (an advantageous lease was secured thanks to the downturn in the retail real estate market) will include a dedicated 22,000-square-foot play area, 30-foot ceilings and a philosophy that is meant to cater to parents as much as children. With parents in mind, in fact, the focus will be on creating a one-stop shop, offering busy moms and dads a full-service bakery, seasonal farmer’s markets, a drugstore and kids products under one aesthetically pleasing roof.
‘The ambience is going to be drastically different,’ says Christensen. ‘It’s our belief that you don’t need the primary colors and the children’s music. Wonder! will have an authentic earth-toned look geared towards parents.’ Other parent-friendly aspects include mobile point-of-sale capabilities, 250 underground parking spots and easy garage-to-store access.
The strategy also includes taking a different approach to staffing the outlet. Wonder! intends to pay staff more than its competitors to draw a higher calibre of employee and engender better customer service. ‘Accordingly, these people are going to care about what they are doing, not just working the job for the summer,’ says Christensen. The initial plan is to have approximately 150 employees in the first location, including head office support staff.
The business plan has already attracted at least one retail heavyweight in Bill Colaianni, former EVP and chief marketing and merchandising officer of the Central American division of Walmart. After tendering his resignation to the world’s largest retailer last September, Colaianni joined Wonder! as its CEO and is currently busy employing his merchandising expertise to fill up the new superstore.
With shelf space a-plenty, expect Wonder! to stock all the usual suspects in terms of national kids brands, but to also complement the offerings with many diverse niche items. ‘The boutique and specialty market is thrilled so far,’ says Christensen. ‘They are used to filling small orders and we are talking about much bigger numbers…our merchandising team is aggressively putting together our plan right now.’
The long-term strategy is to roll out 19 locations in major centers across the US over the next five years with an end goal of more than 150 if all goes well.
‘Every time a parent comes into our store, we want them to walk out with a smile,’ he says. ‘We are going to build this brand as a destination.’