Parents are on notice that toys will be in short supply this year due to snags in the supply chain. “There is going to be a major shortage of toy products this year,” MGA Entertainment CEO Isaac Larian told CNN Business. “The demand is going to be there. What is not going to be there is the product to fill the demand.”
It’s got toy retailers on edge, afraid they’ll leave many parents and kids disappointed this year. However, Camp, described as a “family experience store,” believes this could be its best holiday season ever.
That’s because Camp’s business model doesn’t rely just on selling more toys. It puts creating kid-friendly experiences first – called “programming” in Camp parlance. Purchasing one or many toys is the collectible, take-home memento of the fun times spent there.
“Camp is more than a retail store,” explains Tiffany Markofsky, Camp’s co-founder and chief communications officer. “We combine play product and programming for a totally unique family experience.”
The genesis of the Camp concept was co-founder and CEO Ben Kaufman’s childhood memories of shopping for a much coveted toy. What lived on long after he outgrew the toy was the excitement of going shopping for it.
“The toy matters for the moment, but as time goes on, what’s remembered is going to the toy store. We designed Camp to put back that excitement by creating memorable moments for kids and their parents,” Markofsky says. “The Camp experience is the thing. It is the gift.”
Setting the stage
Each of the six Camp stores is divided into two areas. Families enter the street-side Canteen that serves as a general store for toys, gifts and refreshments. Then behind the Canteen is a pivoting wall, called the “Magic Door,” where the experiences happen, staged and performed by staffers called “Counselors.”
“It’s kind of like a speakeasy for kids and behind the door our counselors engage with kids and their families by performing music, a magic show or dance and organize crafts and projects,” Markofsky explains. Some of the programming themes are Travel Camp, Cooking Camp, Toy Lab Camp and Base Camp.
“We mix the play and the product in the programming. We use the store space so differently, as opposed to having just product on shelves,” she continues.
Each store offers a different behind-the-door programming experience with themes moving onto another store after its local run. Typically programming changes up quarterly throughout the year.
While the chain’s expansion concept is not described as a hub-and-spoke model, it looks like one, since five of its stores are in the New York City area. That gives parents there an opportunity to enjoy totally different experiences in multiple visits each season. The company’s statistics of repeat visits prove it works.
“Since our inception, we’ve always believed that we were going to be a national retailer. Our model is predicated on the idea that we would have multiple locations,” Markofsky explains. Right now it has one store in Dallas and is soon to open one in Los Angeles, suggesting its next hubs.
Another distinctive in its model is brands can sponsor activities and activations in its locations. A diversity of brands have been drawn to this unique opportunity to connect with families, including Mastercard, Walmart, Kroger, Scotts Miracle-Gro and Ally Bank.
Pivoting during the pandemic
For a retailer that puts so much store on in-person experiences, the Covid shutdowns put it back on its heels. The company had to go virtual fast and thanks to Kaufman’s previous experience as chief marketing officer at BuzzFeed, the company was ready.
“As a company, we do things quickly. We are constantly experimenting and working to meet the needs of families which changed so quickly during the pandemic,” Markofsky says. “We were there, offering parents one-hour a day of free programming for their kids. It was really interactive and our sponsors stayed with us as we shifted experiences online. Kids were glued to their screens.”
Camp also innovated its online shopping experience to make it kid-friendly and kid-safe. Parents purchase virtual tokens that the child can redeem with an easy-to-remember code when they go shopping online. Called the Present Shop, kids share their age and interests and the shop serves appropriate options to buy.
Once stores began to open up, that presented another challenge: how to keep families safe in enclosed spaces that before the pandemic attracted crowds. They began to experiment with ticketed time-slots where parents could either register in advance for free admittance or paid for tickets to go behind the Magic Door with the price redeemable for take-home gifts.
This paid ticket model was tested first for the recently opened Paw Patrol experience in its Dallas store, sponsored by Spin Master. Markofsky reports attendance reached 15,000 in the first month it has been opened.
Taking even a bigger leap into ticketed entrance is the latest exhibition at its NYC Fifth Avenue store called Cosmic Camp. Guests are invited to “go into space.”
It offers families an intergalactic adventure of games and exploration where each family member gets a connected “communicator” for their wrists to keep track of their scores in the games. Some of the activities include tossing meteorites into black holes, control space rovers, jumping through a field of lava and commanding a space station.
Unlike other installations, Cosmic Camp is a pure-play experience and no toys are displayed behind the door, though plenty of space-themed toys are available out front in the canteen.
“Cosmic Camp is more like an escape room where family can earn points together,” Markofsky explains. “We wanted to give families that are trying to get back to normal something fun to do that wasn’t based on retail. And we made it to be fun for all ages, from youngsters, tweens, teens and adults,” she continues, noting that other installations like Paw Patrol skew toward a younger crowd.
Just opened this past weekend, Cosmic Camp has drawn the crowds. “It’s been early days so far, but what’s great is that we are seeing that the two ticketed experiences are not limiting traffic numbers,” she reports.
Giving families something to do, not just buy
In closing, Markofsky reports that company revenues increased three-fold in the past year despite the pandemic closures and she is confident that growth will continue at its heady pace, especially as it plans to add two more stores in the Northeast in the coming months, with more potential stores on the drawing board.
“We’re creating an environment for families to come, share and enjoy. Its very much about creating memorable moments for families,” she says.
As for what Camp is planning for this holiday shopping season, Markofsky says it is still too early to say. But what ever it is, it will be big and an experience that families will want to celebrate together. Buying toys will simply be the icing on the cake, of which they have plenty already in stock.