When Sandie Paradiso, senior buyer and product developer at the Devens-based Learning Express, joined the specialty toy retailer 18 years ago, she said there was no shortage of competitors in the market.
Today, Learning Express stands out as one of the few remaining franchises of its kind, but as it turns 25, Paradiso feels good about the company's odds as big-box retailers present steeper competition than ever.
"We're still here, and we're still growing," Paradiso said.
Learning Express had a grassroots beginning. CEO Sharon DiMinico founded the first Learning Express store in Acton in 1987, with the sole purpose of raising revenue for her children's private nursery school to avoid tuition hikes for families.
But the store, which sold high-quality toys that promoted learning, was a hit. DiMinico opened her first corporate store in Needham six months later, and the first franchise store opened in Andover in 1990. Today, there are 140 franchise stores across the United States, and many of the toys they sell were designed by the company.
Paradiso said the secret ingredient for the success of Learning Express franchises, which include MetroWest locations in Acton, Bellingham, Sudbury and Westborough, is to hone in on capabilities unique to smaller, specialty stores.
Because of its size, and a family-like network of franchise owners who communicate regularly, stores are able to jump on hot products as soon as a trend is spotted, she said.
Recently, a Dallas store owner clued in other franchisees into a popular, bottle-cap necklace kit designed by a 13-year-old girl. Other stores began offering the product and found them to be a draw for their customers, too.
"A big box store doesn't have the capability of doing that," Paradiso said.
In addition to agility, old-fashioned customer service hasn't let Learning Express down, she added.
Store owners spend time explaining product features to customers and matching gifts to a child's developmental maturity. Plus, they offer curbside pickup, birthday gift registry, and they're increasingly communicating with customers online via Facebook.
Paradiso said this approach will keep stores afloat, even in the shadows of larger toy stores.
"I'll think we'll be here for another 25 years," she said.