Almost daily, the staff of Learning Express Birmingham picks some toys from their shelves to feature on TikTok. Kaitlyn is always in front of the camera, wearing her “Roll Tide” button and a Malcolm the Mushroom Squishmallow clipped to her apron. Jessica is the one behind the camera, coming up with creative ideas and choosing just the right music to make the toy stand out in fans’ TikTok feeds.
The store started its TikTok account last October and now has more than 1.3 million followers on the platform, while the team’s videos have earned 12.5 million likes. The Toy Book chatted with owner Melissa McCollum about going viral, what makes a toy TikTok thrive, the popularity of fidget toys, and more.
The Toy Book: How did you decide to start a TikTok account for your store, and what (if any) were some of the challenges in starting it?
Melissa McCollum: Another Learning Express store emailed all locations that they thought TikTok would be a great way for stores to reach kids. We already had Facebook and Instagram accounts, which are mainly for reaching adults — mostly moms — and that had exploded since the pandemic started, and people wanted to shop from home rather than in-store. When the other store brought up TikTok, my manager and I immediately said, “No way! This could never work for us! We are already doing all we can with these other social media platforms!” We don’t have time to waste on doing TikTok videos for kids who aren’t the ones spending money or driving themselves to the store. We also didn’t think it would help us locally. We were wrong on all accounts! The main challenge in starting our account was finding and making time to add another social media platform to our already busy lives.
TB: Why do you think TikTok is a helpful platform/resource for toy stores?
MM: TikTok is a great platform for toy stores because we are able to show our products to kids and get feedback for the kids themselves on what they like and what they would like to see/purchase in our stores. We also get to be silly and have fun!
TB: What advice do you have for other toy stores that may be considering starting a TikTok account?
MM: If a store is considering a TikTok account, get someone who you trust to record and post your videos. There is a lot of music and content that is NOT appropriate for children on TikTok. Handing the account over to a teenager is not, in my opinion, a good way to go. You need someone who can protect your store and your brand by making sure there is nothing vulgar or explicit on your account.
Also, don’t give up if you don’t get many views at first! Keep posting videos and something will eventually stick! There is no way to know which one of your videos is going to go viral or completely flop.
TB: Which types of toys do you find have the most success on TikTok?
MM: We do a lot of different videos on TikTok: fidgets, Sqiushmallows, arts and crafts, and the likes. Our most popular videos have been on fidgets. That is because that is currently the hottest trend. When that dies, we’ll move on to something else.
TB: Do you think TikTok has influenced the popularity of fidget toys and, if so, how?
MM: Oh, yes! TikTok and social media are actually driving the fidget trend. We post TikToks about other toys and Squishmallows frequently, but the fidget toys are getting the most views right now. We have many kids come in after school to shop our fidgets and they always want to see Kaitlyn and say hi to her. It’s just the cutest thing and she thoroughly enjoys it.
TB: How do you decide which products to feature on TikTok?
MM: If we have a particular new item or something we want to make trend, we do a video. Unfortunately, we are at the mercy of the kids and what they feel is cool or hot. We try to push things, but they don’t always take off.
TB: You are a local toy store, but not all of your followers are local. Does that impact your content at all? If so, how?
MM: No. We post TikTok videos as if we are posting to our local customers! We have followers all over the world, with the largest percentage being in the U.S. We get phone calls from all over, and we also get visitors from all over as well. They all know Kaitlyn, our TikTok star, and want to take pictures with her and make TikToks with her.
TB: Your TikTok account recently surpassed 1 million followers. How did that feel, and how did you celebrate that milestone?
MM: This was such a big deal to us! We were all so excited about being the first Learning Express to get to 1 million. Kaitlyn would go live on TikTok, which she does such a great job of, and would have all the kids pulling for us to get to 1 million! She would tell them to go comment on our videos #roadto1million and they would. It made us feel like all of our followers were cheering us on. When we made it to a million, we had TikTok T-shirts made and we wore them in the store, got a large bouquet of balloons, and celebrated all week long! We also did some follower giveaways for helping us reach our goal.
TB: In your opinion, what has been the most surprising aspect of the store’s TikTok success?
MM: The most surprising aspect of our success is that we have put Learning Express on the map! Kids all over the country and the world now know about Learning Express toy stores.
Click here to see the Learning Express Birmingham TikTok account.