This article first appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of The Toy Book.

Science CenterThe great American bookstore has made room for a great American toy store.

Barnes & Noble is the largest retail bookseller in the U.S., with nearly 650 stores nationwide, as well as a thriving web presence. But in recent years, the bookstore chain has also been expanding its non-book offerings, balancing out shelves of New York Times bestsellers with educational toys, games, and collectibles.

So far, the strategy has been beneficial. According to Barnes & Noble’s reported sales and earnings for the fiscal quarter ended January 31, growth in educational toys and games helped carry the company to an increase in comparable sales year-over-year. Last year, the retailer began rolling out Science Centers for toys that facilitate science, technology, engineering, art and design, and math (STEAM) education—further investing in a reputation for selling toys that help kids learn.

Barnes & Noble’s educational toy department grew out of the retail chain’s weekly Storytime sessions in its children’s book section. According to Kathleen Campisano, vice president of toys and games, the department evolved organically from a question that the company began asking itself five years ago: Once kids learn to read, and after they begin developing their intellectual curiosity, what is the next logical step?

“We have these avid little readers who come and love Storytime,” she says. “They themselves become readers, and then they’re reading to learn things about their worlds and their lives. So, we thought, ‘What is the physical manifestation of that?’”

From its inception, Barnes & Noble offered children of all ages a highly curated educational assortment. The retailer also noticed that parents’ definition of what constitutes an educational toy or game was often different from the manufacturers’. For example, while the toy industry views arts and crafts as its own category, some parents consider these toys as educational tools.

“Parents would say arts and crafts are fundamental to the early learning experience, and would even argue that they are a formative type of self-expression for a tween or teen,” says Campisano. “What we had to do was strip away our industry understanding and really start to craft the space as it related to our customers’ experience.”

After half a decade of this sort of interplay, Barnes & Noble’s toy sections continue to evolve. An Educational Toys & Games section can be found in more than 450 Barnes & Noble stores, and following their introduction in 32 stores last year, the Science Centers will expand to more than 100 Barnes & Noble stores this year. The growth of these departments results in a careful tightrope-walking act that sometimes exists in meeting both the industry’s and parents’ expectations.

“When you have the school system telling you, ‘Reading, Science, Math,’ you have an obligation—in addition to giving mom her definition of what an educational toy is—to also be credible, and to serve up the country’s definition of what is educational,” says Campisano. “Bringing that to the forefront of children at the age-appropriate time is of critical concern.”

Opinionated Staff, Synergistic Partnerships

Arts & Crafts CenterCampisano manages two departments across the Barnes & Noble chain—Educational Toys & Games, for kids ages 12 and under, and Specialty Hobbies & Collectibles, targeted at consumers ages 13 and up—and she sees these spaces as unique opportunities to take on the feel and the shape of the communities they serve. The reason, she says, is that each bookstore’s toy sections are a reflection of its local community.

Whenever a new toy section is being mapped out, the layout is carefully considered, and depending on the store’s overall size, the community it serves, and its customer demographics, space is allocated accordingly. For example, in locations with lots of families in the community—and where the kids’ book department also tends to be large—the toy department footprint can end up being as much as 2,500 square feet.

In addition, Barnes & Noble is fortunate that some of its best customers are employees, which further maintains the community-friendly vibe. Those in the toy department tend to start out as booksellers, only to discover an enthusiasm for toys and games, which in turn, leads to their becoming educated on the subject and developing expert guidance.

“A lot of people come to work at Barnes & Noble because they want to make an impact on children’s lives by providing play with a purpose,” says Campisano. “Some even want to influence the direction the strategy games business is going, or they want to have a voice at Comic-Con. They become almost compelled to fight the good fight on behalf of our customers about what merchandise we should be carrying, and what brands deserve to expand.”

When it comes to the products lining its shelves, Barnes & Noble’s partners include companies that are well-established in the specialty toy trade, such as Lego, Thames & Kosmos, Ravensburger, ThinkFun, and more. All of these manufacturers have performed their due diligence, and have determined that their main customer also happens to be a Barnes & Noble shopper.

Campisano described these companies as knowing the strength of their respective brands and categories, and scoring well on post-purchase satisfaction among customers.

“They’re the kind of companies that tend to really thrive in our environment,” she says.

Competitive Advantages

BN_BooksellersLogoLike most specialty toy retailers, Barnes & Noble differentiates itself from its mass-market counterparts, according to Campisano, through informed customer service and by allowing the customer to shop in three distinct ways: by brand, by category, and by age. Another way in which it sets itself apart is by providing down time, or what she refers to as “breathing time” and “space time.”

While the average mass-market, toy-buying visit can be a harried, rush-in-and-get-out experience, a shopper at Barnes & Noble is more likely to sit at the café, browse the bookstore shelves, and otherwise take their time.

“When you are in a bookstore, it is inherent, almost instinctive, that you are going to browse the aisle,” says Campisano. “This creates a completely different kind of shopping experience that affords the customer [the chance] to mull over and really check out the merchandise.”

Barnes & Noble also has a strong web presence that works in tandem with the brick-and-mortar stores. Describing it as retail table tennis, Campisano says any of the in-store toy categories can be further expanded online.

“I think our customers know that,” she says. “I know our booksellers are informed by it and feel very confident that they can be solution-based with their recommendations because of it, so that’s our big benefit from it.”

You Can’t Judge a… Toy by Its Cover?

Specialty Hobbies & CollectiblesAlongside construction toys, science kits, and arts and crafts, Barnes & Noble also carries certain dolls from major toy manufacturers, as well as a wide range of outdoor toys. While these might seem more recreational than educational, to Campisano, they are all part of the same mission, which is fostering children’s intellectual development. In the case of dolls, such as Mattel’s Monster High line, she points out that it started as a book property, so the dolls are considered a physical manifestation of an existing literary franchise.

“We are a unique toy retail experience, because we are also a bookstore,” she says, citing the company’s “basket report,” which tells her what kids are reading at different age groups—and serves as an invaluable tool for deciphering trends and topics that are most interesting to children. This inevitably helps inform and shape which toys to stock.

With outdoor toys, Barnes & Noble’s official stance is that physical development is an important part of educational development. As such, the retailer intends to be present in anything that offers an opportunity to digest rules and learn cooperative play.

“Mom would tell you that’s an important part of being a kid,” says Campisano. “The reality is, I have to ask mom, I have to ask gift-givers, I have to ask educators what they think constitutes an educational toy. They are what fuels the business.”

The Future Is Tech-ing Shape

Along with growing its Science Centers, the retailer is keeping its eye on such cutting-edge educational trends as coding and programming, 3-D printing, and the maker movement. According to Campisano, Barnes & Noble sees tremendous opportunity to expand on these categories—either in-store, or online via full presentations at barnesandnoble.com.

“We’re going to be careful and curate it,” she says. “But I love the idea that some of these toys, in purposeful and playful ways, can really intellectually catapult a child into thinking about different possibilities.”
Among new partners for this year, Campisano pointed to Orange Tree for boutique arts and crafts, littleBits for electronics, Makery for do-it-yourself projects aimed at tweens and teens, among others. She credited Barnes & Noble’s buying team—which brings back an offering that, by design, is between 60 to 65 percent specialty and non-mass—for the unique mix.

“[This is] so we can still bring something special, though curated through our educational filter,” she says. “We are constantly on the lookout for new content, as well as new educational partners and new category development.”

Indeed, Campisano described Barnes & Noble’s toy departments as being on a significant growth trajectory, and her own role as being in constant pursuit of bettering the space she occupies.

“As long as the interest of our customers is there, Barnes & Noble is very committed to serving it,” she says. “Our customers’ insights are intrinsic to how we define and mature the space. We’re five years old and growing, and we believe we haven’t even scratched the surface of all we can become.”