Kids drive demand via TikTok as Learning Express online sales soar

It happens every year, the “it” toy that every child must have. In the 1990s, there was Tickle Me Elmo and Pokémon Trading Cards. In the 2000s, the Apple iPod Touch, Xbox and Nintendo DS debuted. Among the most popular toys in 2020 and 2021: Pop Its, Squishmallow plushies and fidget spinners, says Meghan Thompson, marketing manager at Learning Express. But it’s the surge in popularity of these items in 2020 and 2021 that’s unprecedented – with kids sharing videos of the popular items through the TikTok app.

“The pandemic really blew up TikTok — and that’s when our stores started setting up accounts to keep communication open with our customers who are kids, tweens, and teens,” says Thompson. “Kids started finding us on their own and fueled existing hot toy trends.”

Online sales for Learning Express grew by 25% in 2021 compared to the already considerable growth of 2020, when online sales increased by 233% compared to 2019 for the toy chain. Additionally, total sales were up 145% from 2020 and 86% from 2019 before the pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Learning Express hasn’t spent any of its marketing budget on TikTok, “because we really haven’t had to,” Thompson says.

Learning Express is a national brand with individually owned locations. Learning Express gives every franchise the freedom to decide what to post on their store’s TikTok account. Thompson says that while management provides guidance, such as appropriate content and language for its young consumers, each store has its own account and the freedom to create videos. For example, workers will create videos of themselves restocking popular items or showing off new inventory while sampling trending music sounds, lip-syncing or dance routines. Organically created videos with low production value are the most popular, she says. Videos that seem rehearsed or overly polished do not reach watch levels compared to off-the-cuff videos.

The Learning Express Birmingham in Alabama site, for example, has 2.3 million TikTok followers as of January 2022. The store’s pinned and most popular video received 62 million views and 4.7 million likes (where a viewer actively taps the heart icon to show they like) in June 2021 with the hashtag #fidgetfriday and #restock, which showed workers refilling inventory. Another popular video from the Birmingham site in March 2021 received nearly 25 million views and 2.5 million likes featuring shop workers playfully throwing Pop Its. (Learning Express declined to state the total number of views its videos received collectively from the store location’s 109 TikTok accounts.)

The Learning Express store in Birmingham, Alabama has more than 2.3 million TikTok followers.

The more TikTok users who shared Learning Express videos on TikTok, the more phone calls Learning Express locations received regarding the toys featured. When certain videos saw an increase in views, Learning Express saw a simultaneous increase in online and in-store sales, says Thompson.. And because stores were able to reopen more in 2021 than in 2020, Thompson says kids would head to the nearest store to shop in person, even if it meant a bit of a drive.

“We’ve had kids who sometimes travel up to three hours away because they saw us on TikTok,” she says.

Squishmallow user on TikTok

A TikTok user shares videos of Squishmallow with her 374,000 followers. This video is considered the most popular with over 4.5 million views, 1.2 million likes and with hashtags tagging Learning Express to @leahswift’s post in the caption.

The TikTok trend has played a vital role in the growth of Learning Express since the pandemic began, says Thompson. But the toy retailer did not track the number of visits to its website that resulted directly from TikTok traffic, or the direct impact TikTok had on its online sales.

This year, Thompson says Learning Express formed a TikTok subcommittee within the company to address web traffic and how to strategically invest in ads on the platform. The subcommittee will focus entirely on TikTok and be separate from other social media initiatives. The question, says Thompson, is how much to invest and in what.

“It might be investing in software to streamline content publishing. Or an item of ad spend, or none of those. We haven’t decided to do that at this point,” says Thompson. “And we want to keep our eyes peeled for the next big thing because we’ve seen how fast TikTok has grown – it may happen again.”

Respond to the request

Luckily for Learning Express, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, its stores already had a plentiful supply of popular toys like fidget spinners. The store also stocked popular Squishmallow plush toys to keep up with demand. To continue to meet expectations in 2021, Learning Express has ensured that it has sufficient inventory to continue its trajectory.

Each store’s website has different inventory because demand varies by region, says Thompson. Shoppers can either drive to the nearest store or take a mini road trip to a store hours away, as is the case for some customers, Thompson says. Buyers who want to buy online pay shipping based on a tiered pricing model, the more you spend, the higher the shipping costs.

When customers visit the retailer’s website, they are prompted to enter their postcode and the website defaults to directing the shopper to the webpage of the nearest store. Each location can display another range of shipping costs.

In 2021, Learning Express also ordered inventory earlier than usual. Instead of placing orders for the holiday season in September 2021, Thompson says Learning Express locations ordered items in June. That left plenty of time for the toys to ship out for the holiday delivery. Previously, Learning Express stores could order stock through December and receive it in time to ship to customers for the holidays.

Once the inventory arrived with free time, Thompson says his stores got to work promoting the inventory available on TikTok, allowing the popularity of videos from his franchises in 2020 to carry over into 2021.

Thompson says she’s excited to see how TikTok will evolve to make it easier for viewers to shop directly in the app by tapping on tagged products like on other social platforms like Instagram. “We are still waiting for TikTok to roll out an interactive shopping ad experience across all retailer accounts,” she says.


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