Take Back Childhood

Our good friend in the toy industry Melissa, of Melissa & Doug fame, has started and continued with her mission of Taking Back Childhood and letting kids play. We couldn’t agree more and are helping her in this mission locally right here in Lake Zurich, Il. We recently held the first of 3 Take Back Childhood days in which we allow Toy Testers(kids) to play with several toys and allow them to express themselves about the goods, bads, complexity or boredom with a toy. It isn’t necessarily the toy we are testing but rather the play patterns and creativity of the child. So, what did we find out?  Our own Katie H. conducted the play date on June 12th from 10 am till 4 pm with a variety of toys and interaction with kids from 3-12. Here is her write up to Melissa and Doug;

Take Back Childhood

M&D Take Back

Dear Melissa and Doug,

I was responsible for the Take Back Childhood initiative at the Lake Zurich Learning Express Toys. I personally wanted to say that, as a student majoring in neuroscience and studying early learning and development, the goal of this initiative is extremely important and I am glad that your company understands this and created this event.

Most of the kids we got in for our event were a little too young to really get into filling out the lab notebooks (although we had a few) so I just gauged where their interests were and took some notes on what they liked and what they didn’t.

Construction Set in a Box-

Many kids loved this set and enjoyed being creative with it. Some of the kids tried building cars and others enjoyed creating little houses and buildings. One issue that some of the kids had and that one parent pointed out was that some of the screws were a bit difficult to screw into the blocks. One parent commented that wood shavings would come off when they tried screwing the pieces together.

Perfect Pasta Playset & Food Cart-

The Perfect Pasta Playset was an instant hit with many of the younger kids ages 3-5. The kids loved that you could stuff the lasagna with different fillings and that the playset seemed very “real”. We also set out the Food Cart Playset for the kids which the kids and parents really loved. The kids enjoyed mixing and matching the food items.

Magic Set-

The magic set was less popular with the kids. The younger (4-6 yrs) kids found it too difficult to understand the tricks, but they enjoyed watching them being performed. The older (7-9 yrs) kids found the tricks too easy and simple and were not interested. The toy was a great item for the younger kids to watch tricks being performed and might be a good toy for younger ones to “grow into” but it was not enough to keep the older ones interested.

Stamps, Markers, and Crayons-

We rolled out a big sheet of the Melissa and Doug easel paper on our table and the kids really enjoyed drawing all over the table, using the stamps, markers, and crayons. We set out a couple of the stamp sets that we carry for the kids to play with and the kids really had fun.

I hope these notes are helpful for you and your company. Our customers really enjoyed this event and I am happy that I got to be a part of it.

Best, Katie Harbeck

Now Katie is 20 years old and she gets it despite growing up in a tech/social world through her middle school and high school years. The fact that she gets it, gives me great hope that the Mom’s and Dad’s to be of the future will indeed embrace this mission and kids will get back to playing, creating, inventing and socializing with others. Kids talking to kids not just texting.

If you want to learn more about the Melissa & Doug Mission to Take Back Childhood visit this link.  https://www.melissaanddoug.com/our-mission.html

So, until next time, let’s all play this summer and experience a little childhood again.

Best Regards,





Getting Ready for Christmas


Never can start too early!

A lot of work has already gone into the 2017 holiday season and it must, if you are going to pull off a solid and profitable year.  It all started in February at Toy Fair in New York when we debriefed after the 2016 season and scouted for new and unique toys for this year. Then over the last 2 1/2 months our Corporate buying team, with store owner input, has developed our secret Santa list that will be transformed into our fall and holiday catalog pieces. Of course this all must be done while managing the current business and forecasting some products sight unseen. There is risk and you never bat 1000, but…..working together with our vendor partners, knowing our customers, gaging the economy and developing exclusive products we are confident in our ability to hit a homerun. It is our 30th year for our Franchise and my 21rst Holiday season and together we have done pretty well serving our children and families around the country.

There is risk, however, and that is why the toy industry is so difficult. I often quote, if it is so easy, why don’t you see a lot more toy stores?  So, managing risk, while adeptly jumping on hot trends and products, is a formula that yields good results. Take the latest Spinner craze—this started overnight in March and hit a peak in late April and while strong has people saying when will it end?  Some retailers aren’t even in yet.

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So, we will now start executing our buying, staging deliveries, ads, pricing and promotions all gearing us to be successful with our strategy of best Team, best Products, delivered in a WOW experience. Let me end with, I am very excited about the toy pipeline–it is strong, unique and working with the top toy companies in the world, I am confident Santa will deliver in 2017. Now on to Easter/Spring 2018.



3 Biggest Changes in the Toy Biz

I was thinking the other day about the day we opened in August 1996 and how chaotic it was then—-well little did I know 21 years later what chaos really is!  But, for those who thrive on it, this is the business for you.  Here, I list my 3 most powerful changes seen in this industry from my viewpoint.

  1.  The customer is now in the palm of your hand. That’s right, social media (namely Facebook for us), has allowed us to connect, compete and even beat most toy retailers in speed, direct communications and loyalty to our main consumer. Our location alone has over 32,000 fans and we can text some 2600 directly with news, specials, alerts and sales. Speed and directly communicating has changed the way and who we can compete with.
  2.    Vendors, or as I like to refer to them(Partners), have never been more important to team up with to help each other. When I first started I was told what to sell and how to sell and pretty much at what price— today, we work together, many who call to discuss products, consumer needs and wants and also how we partner together– I am just a little old toy store, but when working together, we move a lot of product.  Here are the key attributes of a high volume toy; Gender neutral, right price point, collectible/addons, no batteries(generally), and kids want to use their own money(not just a gift). It helps too when schools ban toys, the kids want them more!!!!
  3. The categorizing of specialty toys vs. mass retailers is over. Kids don’t care who sells the toy or what labels we put on retailers. To be relevant today you must carry what kids want and by that very fact these 2 labels go away. Yes, margins and sales strategies vary, but as the CEO of your market you need to pull the right levers in pricing, product, placement and  promotion.  Value pricing has never been more important and the term keystone so out of date.  I am a toy retailer, making memories for my customers through 3 basic strategies–a great Team of toy experts, great Products(that kids want not what I want to sell) and finally, delivered in a WOW presence that invites kids and adults to return. A true treasure hunt in a physical location–a toy store.
  4.  calico cutie
  5. Thanks for reading and until next time…………………….spin on (the latest hot toy craze- spinners).

Fidget Toys: Don’t get stressed

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Cubes, Spinners, Chains, Controllers are just the start of this new hot toy fad/trend that is for all ages, genders and personalities. Stuck on shelves for years these items have been around but due to social media they have blown up. Just about every person is interested in something within this category. There are many brands and styles available so you will need some guidance. A spinner is not a spinner is not a spinner. It boils down to personal preference. Sort of like buying a pair of sneakers, the fit, the brand, the style, the use, and of course price. How do you choose?

Well, we have tested many and with 100 store owners across the US we talk and have found quality wins(usually every time). Here are 8 things to know about choosing a high-quality fidget spinner;

  1. Most people want a smooth, quiet, long spin. That comes from small center bearings known as R188 bearings (used in yo-yos).
  2. Ceramic hybrid center bearings provide the smoothest spin. These ball bearings are coated in ceramic. The more ceramic, the higher quality the spinner. Higher quality bearings are more costly.
  3. Steel ball bearings are less expensive and less durable. When steel ball bearings roll against a steel collar, it causes heat and friction that ultimately can cause the spinner to break after a lot of use.
  4. Larger center bearings known as 608 bearings (used in skateboards) have friction and make a louder noise. Some people like this sensory vibration.
  5. Aluminum alloy metal fidget spinners offer ninja-like speed, spin the longest and are quietest (best for school).
  6. High-quality tri-spinners are precision balanced, slower and heftier than the metal spinners and allow you to do certain tricks.
  7. Look for caps. Spinners without caps can’t spin on the table, and the exposed bearings can get dirty. Some people prefer no caps, and are soothed by the feeling on their fingertips.
  8. Extra features like glow-in-the-dark, LEDs, patterns, and different shapes and colors make fidget spinners highly collectible!

12 sided cube

Here are 3 things to know about choosing a high-quality fidget cube;

  1. Check that all the sides work! Low-quality cubes sometimes have buttons that don’t click, wheels that don’t roll or joysticks that don’t move in all directions.
  2. The stress cube should feel good in your hand. Look for a velvet finish, instead of hard, noisy plastic. This is especially important for the worry stone side – you want it to feel satisfying to rub!
  3. Cubes vary in noise level. Since most people want fidget cubes for school, work or other places where you need to be quiet, check whether any of the sides can be pressed or rolled silently.

For the most comforting, concentration-improving and anxiety-soothing fidgeting, you want high-quality fidget toys that last. We’ve got your fidgeting needs covered.

Don’t forget, you can always ask our Toy Experts at your local Learning Express Toys for advice on choosing your perfect fidget items! We all work together to find the perfect toy.

Hello Spring-Toy(?) Trends for 2017

I feel great. No snow for the first time in who knows how long in January and February. Pretty amazing, but who’s complaining! What we do know is what is trending in toys, or should I say, non traditional toys. The fidget trend, accessories for cell phones and tween accessories are not what I bought my kids, but this is now and 2017. So, if kids want it, we need to find it. And attending our 20th New York Toy Fair (Javits Center) was a happening place with one of the largest crowds ever. You could feel the buzz.

Three Major Trends for 2017;

  1. Non Traditional toys are hot. The fidgety block introduced last year by Antsy Labs on Kickstarter certainly has propelled this trend in to 2017. Many variations are out but stick to quality if you want a product for the long haul. We have had teachers, therapists and grandparents purchasing these and excited about what a simple invention can do. No batteries either! The Fidget spinner is just now hitting the shelves and you will see many different game variations as well. In addition, cell phone accessories from PopSockets to mirrors to phone savers are flooding the market, but they actually serve a purpose and work. Finally, bath products are in, especially bath bombs with kid friendly messages.
  2. Games and Puzzles remain hot. Even just simple crazy games like hitting yourself with shaving cream to a dog that gets wet and then shakes to being sprayed with water from a toilet(yes a game) are all trending. But, more importantly, strategy games, cooperatives as well as competitive games, are being sought out. And, after 20 years, Pokemon is as hot as ever. Not just the cards but kids wanting to learn strategy. Who knew?
  3. Get up and play–stay active. Has your Doctor mentioned this?  Of course, and now parents and grandparents want to teach their kids that activities serve 2  purposes, staying fit and being creative. This summer you will see many versions of using chalk to paint and create patterns, paint balls for art, many versions of water/pool toys as well as unique outdoor games that challenge yet promote spirit and family time.

   I so much enjoy this business because every day there are opportunities knocking to help kids develop and learn. My good friend Melissa of Melissa & Doug has started a tremendous initiative called Together We Can Take Back Childhood! Amen. I’m on board and you will definitely see this trending in the years to come. Stop in and say hi as March kicks off our spring season.  See you in the store. Rick


Starting a New Year(Rick’s view)

January is coming to a close and the holidays seem a long time ago for us. We have been to Atlanta for the first buying show of the year and already picked up some great new products and ideas. New York Toy Fair(the largest toy show in the world) is only 3 weeks away and is said to be sold out with over 1000 exhibitors and 150,000 products on display. We will be meeting with Lego, Spinmaster, Moose Toys among many others to bring you the top trends and toys your kids want. Here are 3 trends we are seeing;

  • Active play-products that encourage the physical and mental well-being of children through play. Indoors and outdoors to help our children enjoy a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
  • STEM or STEAM. More and more toys are challenging kids and encouraging them to believe in their dreams. Not just pretend, but in real life through problem solving, inventing, coding, arts, sciences and so many more. My hope is this just doesn’t stay as an acronym but that our industry really  (as well as consumers) support this with great products that sell.
  • Collectibles-this is no longer a fad, but collecting has always been a part of kids. My collectibles were baseball cards and coins(pennies). Today, most collectibles are promoted thru YouTube and licensed properties but the point is they are still collected at affordable price points. This will continue as kids have allowances and are rewarded for small accomplishments.

    Finally, although we are a toy store, who would think our top 3 sellers this month are not traditional toys?  They are Fidgety Cube, PopSocket for phones and a Clipcase. So, this is why we are always on the search for what you and your kids want. We pledge to be on alert always. Bringing Lake Zurich the coolest stuff. See you in the store. Rick