What comes to mind when you think of summer camp? Dunking marshmallow-pierced twigs into a crackling bonfire? Peeling sticky glue from your fingers after an arts-and-crafts session? The smell of pine trees and dusty, sunbaked trails? The scenes may vary from one person to another, but this is universal: Camp is about discovery and play. And that’s the best way to describe Camp toy stores.

Camp is a family experience store that features a rotating menagerie of summer camp-themed decor that blends product and play. The Fifth Avenue Camp location cemented itself as the flagship store when it opened in December 2018, and the brand quickly expanded into five locations, including three stores in New York City and two more in Dallas and South Norwalk, Connecticut.

The front of each Camp store has a general store-style Canteen area. Source: The Toy Book

The front of each store masquerades as a small-town general store, featuring merchandise for the whole family: clothing, backpacks, gifts, candles, and more. There is also a canteen with a coffee bar that serves ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery or Momofuku Milk Bar. Ample Hills even created a Camp-exclusive ice cream flavor called “S’mores Sprinkles, Please.” Visitors might not realize that this charming, full-service boutique is actually a toy store — until they find the magic door.

“The canteen is what creates that magical moment, like a speakeasy, where you find the magic door that will open. From there, you will enter what we refer to as ‘the experience,’ which is the interactive play space part of the store,” says Camp’s Chief Marketing Officer Tiffany Markofsky. All of the Camp stores, with the exception of the Hudson Yards location in New York City, have a magic door.

This hidden door at the Camp Fifth Avenue location opens into a secret world of toys. Source: The Toy Book

You’d never know that behind the unassuming wooden wall — the one at the Fifth Avenue location is shelved with big jars of classic candy and knick-knacks, such as Pop Rocks and bouncy balls — is a camp-themed hideaway bursting with toys.

The design themes of each store rotates every season, completely changing the decor and activations to feature different types of camps, such as Basecamp, Toy Lab Camp, Travel Camp, and Cooking Camp.

The Toy Lab Camp entrance inside Camp’s Fifth Avenue location. Source: The Toy Book

All of the stores launch with the Basecamp theme, based on a New England summer camp, which is how Markofsky and founders Ben and Nikki Kaufman conceptualized the idea. “The group of us who founded Camp, we had the privilege of going to camp when we were kids,” Markofsky says. “Camp means a lot of things to a lot of different people. In our case, we were in a New England summer camp and we thought, ‘When was the time in your life when you felt most free, made new friends, discovered new things, and it was all about play?’ That was at camp.”

The team also discussed how there is a different type of camp for every interest, such as nature, science, sports, and the arts. “We had this idea that we would move these themed experiences from store to store so that there would be all different types of camps in the future,” Markofsky says.

The store layouts feature themed rooms where customers can find hands-on activities and corresponding toys. “The way we arrange our merchandise is connected to the experience that you are in,” Markofsky says. “It’s much more about discovery and combining ideas rather than just products on shelves.” If you’re in the sports field at Basecamp, you’ll find footballs, soccer balls, sports books, and other athletic toys. If you’re in the radio lab at Basecamp, you’ll find magic toys and coding toys. If you’re in the garden of Cooking Camp, you’ll find toys featuring gardening, bugs, and poop. If you’re next to one of the cabins, you’ll find pajamas, slippers, night lights, tea lights, and colorful pillows that you’ll want to reach out and touch.”

This room at the Fifth Avenue location is designed to look like a cabin. Source: The Toy Book

Iscream makes some of the playful throw pillows and backpacks found in the stores, including a reversible-sequin unicorn pillow and a see-through backpack with rainbow pompoms. “Camp has a unique way of merchandising product. By creating environments for the products, it makes the experience whimsical and fun for the shoppers,” says Iscream Vice President Jennifer Mines Kamen. She believes that retailers can move products faster when they get creative with merchandising because it attracts consumers who were not necessarily looking for that type of item when they first entered the store.

All of Camp’s nooks and crannies encourage visitors to meander and explore, discovering new products along the way. Kids can dress up in fairy wings, superhero capes, and feathered boas that are stored in an open chest. Plus, they can race scooters around a circular track or throw themselves into a foam pit. There are also demo areas where kids can sit at tables to test out games or get down on the carpeted floor to play with an oversized dollhouse, such as the luxe four-story Bianca City Life Dollhouse from KidKraft.

The Bianca City Life Dollhouse from KidKraft, Source: KidKraft

“The fun, interactive nature of Camp stores provides parents and kids the chance to play with KidKraft products before buying,” says Susan Russo, vice president of product and brand marketing at KidKraft. “The ability for parents to see our product fully assembled and [to see] how kids’ imaginations are inspired helps to drive the purchase decision.”

The team at Camp wants to bring joy back into the toy-shopping experience by creating a space where families can do more than just shell out cash. “It’s about testing toys and playing with toys. We are always demoing products in our store. It’s really a big part of the Camp experience,” Markofsky says. There are activities built around the products so that kids can interact with the toys and the books in a personal way.

At Camp, kids can participate in store activities, such as arts-and-crafts sessions. Source: The Toy Book

The daily activities range from arts and crafts to on-stage performances that would look right at home at a camp talent show. Kids can tie-dye T-shirts, make DIY lightsabers, listen to story time, or sing nursery rhymes with Counselor Dan the Melody Man. Some activities are free, while others require either a ticket or the purchase of select supplies. Families can take advantage of Camp’s Date Night Pajama Party and Shop and Drop programs that allow parents to drop off their kids in store. They can participate in supervised activities while the parents go shopping or enjoy a date night on their own for a few hours.

Camp also teams up with different brands to create in-store activations, such as its Dolittle partnership with Universal earlier this year. The Hudson Yards location held a kick-off event with an animal balloon artist, Dolittle-themed cupcakes, and an activity session teaching kids to make paper-bag puppets of some of the animals that were featured in the film.

Prior to a temporary store closure due to the COVID-19 quarantine, the Connecticut location had an activation with Visit Florida that blended seamlessly into the store’s Travel Camp theme. An entire section of the store was dedicated to the Florida tourism board, featuring goggles, pool toys, manatee toys, and books about the Kennedy Space Center and outer space. There were physical activations during which kids could take photos with a Kennedy Space Center cutout or sit inside a glass-bottomed boat on top of a digital display of Florida’s Crystal River. That location also ran Visit Florida-sponsored activities, including writing kitschy Florida postcards and making glow-in-the-dark galactic goo slime.

Families can take a coffee or ice cream break in the canteen area. Source: The Toy Book

Even the Camp website makes the shopping experience enticing for potential shoppers, with playful product descriptions and an interactive section in which visitors can click around to virtually “play” with the toys. For example, shoppers can dissect an alien by clicking and sliding the mouse over Moose Toys’ Treasure X Aliens, or choose their own adventure with Spin Master’s Juno My Baby Elephant by clicking different buttons to pet her trunk or feed her a peanut. Consumers can then purchase those products after digitally playing with them. It’s a clever marketing strategy to get consumers engaged and more invested in the merchandise before buying it.

With so many big-name toy stores shutting down in recent years, it’s a risky move to open up a handful of new brick-and-mortar stores, but Camp is plowing ahead with its playground of toys that bring a whole new meaning to summer camps. The brand’s mission of discovery and play appeals to even the pickiest of kids, and when you’re selling a dream of adventure, all customers will turn into happy campers.

This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!