When Ben Kaufman opened the first CAMP toy store in the Flatiron district of Manhattan a year ago, he already knew he wanted to make CAMP a national player.
Kaufman saw an opportunity to fill a need in the New York neighborhood where he lived, by creating a store that not only sold toys but gave kids and parents a fun place to spend time. But he also saw even greater potential — a chance to build a national retail chain designed for the digital age.
“Think about it: When was the last time a multi-brand national retail chain got started?” Kaufman told CO—. “What would happen if you tried to build a national retail chain on top of modern, internet-centric tools and know-how?”
CAMP recently made the leap from single store to retail chain with the opening of four new CAMP stores at the end of 2019.
It has opened stores in Dallas and in South Norwalk, Connecticut, as well as two additional New York City stores, in Brooklyn and at Manhattan’s new Hudson Yards retail and residential development.
And more are in the works, Kaufman said. We don’t plan on stopping at five, he said.
Kaufman, 33, co-founded CAMP with his wife, Nikki, in 2018. He had previous experience as chief marketing officer at media company Buzzfeed, and as an entrepreneur. He helped create the Mophie phone charger brand, and founded invention startup Quirky, which sold consumer products to Target, Walmart and other big box retailers. Quirky was a favorite of venture investors and won Kaufman a spot on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2014, but it filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
At CAMP stores, kids race around on scooters, slide down slides, and play with toys in themed rooms that change every three to four months.
The Flatiron store has an entrance area with gift items and a small café. A hidden door opens to reveal the larger themed play area.
From the moment the first CAMP store opened, just before Christmas 2018, it caught the attention of the toy industry.
“It turns the experiential buzzword into something tangible,” said James Zahn, senior editor of industry publications The Toy Book and The Toy Insider. “Once you’re behind the secret door, it feels like a genuine escape to another world.”
“CAMP is very experiential and interactive,” said Isaac Larian, founder and CEO of leading toy brand MGA Entertainment, maker of the hit L.O.L. Surprise toys. “I like it,” Larian told CO—.
With the market need resulting from no national toy retailer, and my personal connection to both the marketing industry and my own growing family, it felt like the perfect fit.
Ben Kaufman, co-founder, CAMP
Date night drop-offs
Kaufman says CAMP is less toy store and more a place for parents and kids to spend time. It hosts mommy-and-me yoga sessions, cookie decorating classes, appearances by children’s book authors, musical performances and offers “date night drop-off” babysitting services on the weekends.
The inspiration for CAMP came both from events in Kaufman’s personal life and retail changes.
Kaufman and his wife, as the parents of a toddler, were looking for kid-friendly activities. “It struck us that there were so few things to do on a reliable basis indoors as a young family,” Kaufman said. His job at Buzzfeed made him aware of how brands were trying to connect with customers in new ways, and how they were spending large amounts to create experiences.
At the same time, Toys ‘R’ Us was in the process of closing all of its U.S. stores following a failed bankruptcy restructuring.
“With the market need resulting from no national toy retailer, and my personal connection to both the marketing industry and my own growing family, it felt like the perfect fit,” Kaufman said.
Selling more than toys
Only about 30% of the sales at CAMP are from the core toy category, Kaufman said. Gifts, novelty items, apparel sales and ticket sales for paid activities make up the rest. The store encourages families to sign up for free memberships, which let them earn points by spending money at CAMP, which give them access to special events at the store.
CAMP does not reveal how many members it has, or sales figures.
The New York flagship on Fifth Avenue typically draws 1,000 to 1,200 visitors on weekdays, and 2,000 on weekends, and the average family stays in the store for an hour and a half, Kaufman said.
Over 40% of the transactions are from repeat customers, and 56% of visitors make a purchase, although Kaufman believes the true conversion rate is much higher. The 56% figure includes everyone in the store, including kids too young to buy anything. “The real number is probably somewhere in the 80% to 85% range of families [that] buy something,” he said.
CAMP has raised millions in venture investment, and has attracted retail and finance heavy-hitters to its board, including Michael Goldstein, a former CEO of Toys ‘R’ Us, and Rachel Shechtman, who founded Story, a ground-breaking New York City store that changed its merchandise, and its retail story, every four to eight weeks, and now is part of Macy’s.
Zahn said CAMP has the potential to be a national chain, but it has to be scaled carefully.
“My biggest concern is that they might try to grow too big too fast,” he said.
Another hurdle for CAMP, Zahn said, is that the stores have to generate enough sales to make money. “The line between being a retailer and being a free hangout like a mall play space is something that has to be approached with caution,” he said.
CAMP is being born at the same time as Toys ‘R’ Us is attempting a rebirth. Toys ‘R’ Us has opened two experiential stores in New Jersey and Texas, and plans to open up to 10 more in 2020.
Experiential is what every retailer is promising, but few are delivering. Kaufman said he defines experiential by one measurement: “Are you going to leave your house to go do it?”
“If you’re selling commodity-type items, or items that are highly searchable and available on the internet, then the experience has to be the reason to come, not the commodity,” Kaufman said.
If CAMP gives parents and kids a good reason to leave the house, Kaufman believes they will beat a path to his stores.
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Published January 27, 2020