Why toy retailers are betting big on experiential

In a world where you can shop anywhere, anytime, toy stores like Tru Kids Brands and Camp believe experiences will bring customers back, says Robin Raskin.
March 6, 2020

If you’ve been out shopping at an actual physical store recently, you may have noticed the trend towards what the industry is calling “experiential shopping.” From taking a selfie with your favorite product, to augmented reality makeup experiences, and even customizing your sneakers or jeans, the idea is to provide customers a reason to walk into the store that couldn’t be duplicated online. Indeed, one study by Harris Group found that 72% of Millennials (today’s parents) want to spend money on experiences, rather than things.

We’re seeing a migration of this trend to the toy world. The goal? To let parents and kids have as memorable time shopping for toys as they do playing with them.

At the recent NY Toy Fair 2020’s Creative Factor, a series of conference panels and demonstrations looking at the changing world of the toy industry, some of the pioneers in experiential shopping took center stage to explain the transition.

One of the success stories is Camp (pictured), a New York-based store that calls itself a “family experience” store. Ben Kaufman, the company’s CEO, imagined a store created for people like his own family.  “When my wife and I had our first son, there was nowhere for us to go as a family that didn’t suck,” said Kaufman. “Families have no reliable, repeatable, dynamic, accessible space to spend time together and have fun.”

Beyond the regular shopping and snacking, Camp stores allow families to participate in activities such as cooking, making art, music and STEM projects. The stores also feature rotating themed experiences like ToyLab CAMP, a Microkick Scooter racetrack, and an acrylic tunnel and slide that leads kids into foam. There’s even a truck kids can climb in and “drive.” Many of the themed events are sponsored by brands like MasterCard and Google.  Since its store opened a little more than a year ago, Camp has expanded from its flagship store to four other locations.

Azadeh Jamalian, a veteran of the high tech toy industry, is building what she calls a family innovation hub. The Giant Room in New York City is chock full of playthings, both low and high tech. Parents can sign their kids up for open-ended workspace time where they can play with the hundreds of toys, art materials and electronics.  There are workshops that explore coding, electronics, art, and even presentation skills where they deliver mini TED-like “tot-talks.” Today, The Giant Room relies on customer’s fees for revenue, but the company is exploring relevant sponsorships and partnerships.

Even beleaguered Toys “R” Us is getting in on the action.

“Toys “R” Us’s closing had some serious fallout,” said Richard Barry, CEO of the new Tru Kids Brands, in an onstage interview. But he believes the new, smaller footprint stores are bringing loyal Toy “R” Us shoppers back with interactive play spaces and attracting new customers that want to interact with the forty-plus brands the retailer has concentrated on. Companies, including Hasbro, The LEGO Group, Melissa & Doug, MGA Entertainment, Nintendo, Schleich and Spin Master are some of the first to help create interactive store displays. There’s also a Play-A-Round Theater, an open event space hosting demonstrations, launches, author visits and character meet-and-greets.

The spaces will have easily movable interior walls for constantly revolving play, he said. And there’s a focus on striking up the right strategic partnerships with companies like Target (for online fulfillment) and Candytopia (for immersive in-store experiences).

Of course there are no guarantees that visitors to the store will make in-store purchases, and creating an ever-changing environment using AR, 3D and other tech-driven activities can be a costly, time-consuming endeavor.  But these new spaces appeal to a shopper that’s hungry for experiences and looking to “test drive” toys before buying.

A new generation of shoppers, retailers hope, want more than transactions at the store. Experience, they believe, is the new currency.

Robin Raskin is the founder of Living in Digital Times, a conferences and events company devoted to looking at the intersection of technology and lifestyle. The company was acquired by CTA (the Consumer Technology Assiocation) in January.

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